Saying goodbye to a landmark

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In the retail jungle of sterile big boxes and cookie-cutter chain stores, Lakeshore Jewelry & Gifts is an increasingly rare animal, a true mom-and-pop establishment that has continued to thrive in a stand-alone location while its counterparts have been forced out of business.

Customers — from as far away as Cleveland and Medina — drive past the malls and shopping centers in their suburban neighborhoods to reach Akron’s Middlebury District for Lakeshore’s wide array of one-of-a-kind diamond and gemstone pieces, custom design and repair work, fine watches, crystal, clocks, figurines, pens, Christmas ornaments and serving pieces. Its 72-year-old owner, Fay Wish, is so busy helping customers that getting a few minutes alone with her is an accomplishment.

“Just as long as it’s not too long,” she says before the conversation starts. “We’re jammed here.”

Fay is so busy is because she and her 37-year-old daughter, Boni, Lakeshore’s president, announced in mid-October that they were closing their doors after 47 years. Boni cites multiple reasons for the decision that she and her mother agonized over for two years: the loss of her father, Don Wish, who died of leukemia in 1993; estate planning problems; and her hardworking mother’s advanced age.

“I have mixed emotions about it because I love what I’m doing,” Fay says. “But I’ve lost my two brothers, I’ve lost a sister, and I’ve lost my husband. I think it’s time for me to move on.”

If competition from other retailers never figured into the decision to close the store, it’s probably because competition has been a fact of life ever since Fay and Don opened their business, which began as a discount department store on the first floor of a little old house “on the wrong side of town, near the factories,” Fay says. Some people thought the business was destined to fail because of rivals such as the factory stores and catalog houses that were so popular at the time.

But Don, who worked for his parents running games and stands at amusement parks (including the now-defunct Summit Beach Park), needed a sideline during the winter months to support his wife and three daughters. He optimistically crammed the space with cameras, appliances, toys, tools, vacuum cleaners, luggage — and jewelry.

“We had the bicycles hanging from the ceiling,” Fay remembers.

The little store thrived because Don sold his merchandise at a “special price.”

“He had so much to offer as far as his knowledge,” Fay adds. “Knowledge means an awfully lot in retailing. If you have the knowledge, then you can do almost anything.”

In 1960 — after the store had overtaken the house’s three floors and a trailer in the back yard — the couple moved their burgeoning business across the street to a building that once housed the Tangier Restaurant & Cabaret. Boni says her father purchased the place on a handshake from Tangier’s owner, Edward George.

Shortly thereafter, Don began to pare down the stock — first the cameras, then the electronic equipment and appliances. By the end of the decade, the store, which eventually grew to 7,000 square feet of selling space, was offering only jewelry and gift items.

Boni, a former employee of a recording industry trade publication in California, began working for her father shortly after she returned to Ohio in 1988, and earned a diamondology certificate from the Gemological Institute of America the following year. Her older sisters, Rena Cohen and Mara Buttleman, are not involved in the business.

Although many stores in similar locations have moved with their clientele from the cities to the suburbs, Lakeshore Jewelry & Gifts remained in that building that Don bought. Fay says her husband did put a deposit on a store in Brecksville years ago, “then he decided, no, it’s better to just stay in one spot,” she says.

Although the location is easily accessible via state Route 8 and has ample parking, Fay admits it hasn’t provided the drop-in traffic a mall location would.

“We have fought the fact that people can forget about us,” Boni says. “We have a big overhead, and we can’t pay for advertising like the big chains can.”

Instead, Lakeshore’s clientele has been built primarily on a reputation spread through word of mouth.

If you have something to offer, you have people coming,” Fay says.

Judging from the store’s success, what Lakeshore has offered has been worth the drive to what Boni concedes is “a very odd location.” The store, which “cut out the middleman” by doing much of its own importing, created a niche by offering a good selection of one-of-a-kind pieces at a competitive price.

“We’ve had industry people come in and say we could open up 16 jewelry stores with our inventory,” Boni says.

The knowledgeable staff also contributes to the store’s success. Boni estimates the store has put no fewer than five of its 15 employees — workers who have been with the business 20, 30, 35 years — through diamond, colored gemstone and appraisal training.

“If you’re putting a ruby ring on the counter, you have to know about the ruby,” Fay says. “Is it a good ruby? Is it a bad ruby? Is it a good 14-karat gold mounting? Is it stamped, or is it cast? If you know what you’re selling, you educate the customer. Then they know what they’re doing.”

Knowledge, she adds, can produce an equally valuable commodity.

“People come up to us and say, ‘We know we can trust you,'” Fay says.

When asked to elaborate on the reasons for closing Lakeshore Jewelry & Gifts, Boni is quick to answer, “I want my mom to retire. I want her to enjoy her life. I don’t want this to be her life.”

She is less willing to expand on the estate planning issue.

“Any family business will probably understand,” she says. “It’s very hard to plan, especially in this industry. Our estate taxes would be enormous if something happened to my mom.”

Boni says Lakeshore Jewelry & Gifts will remain open through January. Then she plans to throw a big retirement party for her mother, to which the public will be invited.

“We want to go out in a happy way,” she says. “That is how my dad would want it.”

She denies rumors that she will immediately reopen under another name at another location. Instead, she plans to look for a job in the industry, she says. But she doesn’t rule out the possibility of opening a jewelry store in the future.

“All I can say is, stay tuned.” How to reach: Lakeshore Jewelry & Gifts, (330) 762-0325