After serving West Los Angeles watch customers for more than five decades, Feldmar Watch Co. finally gets a much-needed face-lift. Here’s how the family-owned retailer pulled off a two-year-long extreme store makeover while keeping the business running
by Chris Willman
Mark Harmon, the star of TV’s No. 1 show, NCIS, has been shopping for timepieces at Feldmar Watch Co. on Los Angeles’ nondescript Pico Boulevard since 1979, when both he and the store were pretty humble. At that time, he was the second lead on a long-forgotten series called 240 Robert, and Feldmar looked like a discount store that had been taken out of pregentrified Times Square and plopped down a mile from Beverly Hills. But its lack of fancy airs was one reason the unpretentious Harmon liked it.
“It’s a store you drive right by, because it’s kind of wrapped in between the bike shop and a bunch of delis and some synagogues and an old plumbing store,” says the actor. “Feldmar is an oddity and a throwback. It’s still very much ma and pa.”
That phrase keeps coming up as other people talk about Feldmar, too. But these days you might want to think less in terms of Ma and Pa Kettle and more in terms of Ma and Pa Montblanc.
“He’s a lot more knowledgeable than I ever was,” says Sol Meller (r.) of son Scott (l.). “To me, it was making a living.”
After being open in the same location since the 1950s, Feldmar just emerged from its first redesign—or maybe survived it is a better term. For two years, there was a hellish amount of construction going on as the watch sellers not only expanded into an adjacent space but also gutted two old storefront buildings from top to bottom, leaving literally nothing standing from the old store but the frame. And they did this without ever closing for a day, even though the employees may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for years after all that jackhammering. It was remodeling as an X-treme sport.
To picture the result, try to imagine Crazy Eddie’s Pawn Shop successfully rebranding itself as Tiffany’s, at least on a cosmetic level. The redesign was necessitated by the watch industry’s shift toward an all-luxury mindset. Feldmar had long ago moved in that direction, selling watches in the four-, five-, and six-figure range. But challenge No. 1 was to design a new store that looked the part. Challenge No. 2 was to do that while not alienating an intergenerational customer base that might shy away if the glitzier look suggested any of the more beloved old-school elements had been packed off with the rubble.
To hear the family that owns Feldmar tell it, the change wasn’t just about attracting a more upscale customer in L.A., but playing very deliberately to an audience in Switzerland.
Courtesy of Feldmar Watch Co.
Until the remodel, Feldmar’s hadn’t changed much since this photo was taken in the 1970s.
“Reality is perceived, especially in the luxury business,” says Scott J. Meller, the 37-year-old son of owner Sol Meller and the principal force behind the redesign. “Everybody thinks it’s so hunky-dory when they look at your fancy building on Rodeo Drive, even though you could be on the verge of bankruptcy. And we paid our bills and did a lot of business, but people in the industry pull up to an old, ratty building on Pico Boulevard and go, ‘Is this a joke? My brand is really featured in this store?’ My dad has a big heart and his clients followed him because of trust and loyalty, not because he built a fancy showroom. But we knew that for the industry to not just sell us some watches but really showcase us as their prominent retailer, we needed to step it up.”
Courtesy of Feldmar Watch Co.
One thing that remains consistent: the company’s commitment to service
Another consideration was the rampant consolidation that took place in the wake of the recession. Suddenly, the top watchmakers were partnering with far fewer retailers. Says Sol, 67, “If you look at a certain brand that once had, say, 700 U.S. outlets, they may be down to 220. Well, who are the 220? The 220 are like us, where the line is dealt with respectfully. These companies do not want to be in the old mom-and-pop type of setup.”
Courtesy of Feldmar Watch Co.
Sol Meller’s father-in-law, Barney Feldmar (center), at the Heuer workshop in Switzerland four decades ago
There was some resistance to giving in to outsiders’ expectations of what a luxury-oriented store should look like. And since the redesign, says Scott, “every once in a while you hear, ‘Oh, the store is great, but I really loved the old store.’ It was kind of like Cheers, the place where everybody knows your name. There was a comfort in being familiar with it—but a discomfort that it just wasn’t functional anymore.”
How dysfunctional was the old store? Architect-designer Bill Bernstein recalls how the windows had been covered by posters, creating the feel of an overcrowded cave inside. “It was a nice, simple, but discount-looking store,” he says. The lack of uniformity among the cases created “a hodgepodge, because every brand brought in their own case and stuck them where they fit. It was kind of like a skyline, because some cases were tall, some were short, some were wide, some were narrow. It was terrible.”
Courtesy of Feldmar Watch Co.
Feldmar Watch Co.’s West L.A. storefront in the 1970s, when actor Mark Harmon began patronizing the business
Sol, however, was not an easy sell when his son argued that the store needed a top-to-bottom transformation. “Originally he had some resistance,” says Bernstein. Even after tacitly giving the go-ahead, “Sol was very concerned about keeping certain brands that had always been there that were lower-end brands. The challenge was to keep all of the [less expensive] brands but make it work for some of these newer Swiss watches that people were spending $50,000 or $100,000 on.”
After getting the go-ahead from his initially reluctant dad, Scott commissioned Bernstein to come up with renderings and went off to a trade fair in Geneva with the sketches under his arm. He got an immediate response from some brands that previously had been holdouts for either snobby or economically sound reasons: If you build that, we will come. Even then, “it was a big risk,” says the architect.
The redesign combined two storefronts into a main showroom distinguished by uniform showcases and ambient lighting.
The field of dreams was an arduous and expensive couple of years in the making. If they’d closed the store completely, the renovation would probably have only taken one year instead of two, but that was never a seriously considered option. Neither was a temporary relocation, since Scott figures the only place he could have found with the kind of built-in vault he needed would have been an abandoned bank. So it was time to grin—or grit teeth—and bear the onslaught of hard hats. “I don’t know how the staff didn’t lose their minds,” says Bernstein. Sol concedes he almost lost his. “The dismantling of the two old vaults with sledgehammers was beyond the beyond. You went home and said, ‘This is never going to end. This is horrible.’ ”
Just as he’s saying this, another celebrity customer, comic Norm Crosby, pops his head in to check on Sol, who’s just had a hip replacement. “This place is absolutely gorgeous,” gushes Crosby, after getting the health update. “This is going to be the most beautiful jewelry store in the world.” Then, without missing a beat, he complains: “My watch is still not ready?”
Feldmar’s watch selection includes both low- and high-end models. Breguet is among the upper-tier brands on display.
The veteran comedian may be biased in his assessment—or perhaps just greasing the wheels of his repair job—but independent minds would agree that the Feldmar transformation has proved stunning indeed. The two storefronts that composed the old store (one of which was moved into in the 1950s, the other of which was a ’70s addition) have been combined into a main showroom marked by a relative uniformity of elegant casework, oak flooring, and ambient lighting.
The third and newest storefront is now what the Mellers call a “boutique” space. When they started demolition on this 1930s building, which had belonged for decades to a neighboring drapery cleaning service, the Feldmar folks found a long-covered bow truss ceiling and vintage brickwork—and opted to incorporate these into the design instead of tearing them down. It’s in this old-school–feeling room that they built a “watch bar,” where customers can be fitted or complete a purchase…or just order an espresso from the watch-bartender and contemplate that ceiling.
Feldmar’s new Omega shop-in-shop is a far cry from the store’s “old, ratty building,” a Pico Boulevard mainstay since 1956.
The conceptual ingenuity doesn’t stop there. On the other end of the complex, if you can call it that, is a newly separate service area—and adjacent to that is a space where customers can bring their espressos and watch the store’s watchmakers do their intricate work behind glass.
“We have to have some area where the watch guys aren’t just hidden in the back, where people can walk up and see them working,” Scott says. “I don’t know if the watch guys are going to be thrilled about it, but the customers will!”
One thing you can count on if you visit Feldmar is seeing the Mellers at work. Because one thing that wasn’t part of either the old design or the new one is an office for Sol, the owner. “For 41 years, I’m here from 8:30 in the morning just like my employees, and leave at 6 or 6:30 at night, just like my employees. I don’t hide in the office reading magazines. I have no office.”
Adds Mark Harmon: “He’s just always available. Certainly that hasn’t changed for me since the ’70s. I’ve sent guys in there who are heads of companies who are looking to buy 30 watches for people retiring or whatever, and Sol takes care of them. It’s also pretty remarkable to have the selection that he has and at the same time get watches serviced. It’s personal.”
Sol’s philosophy extends to still selling lower-end watches and inexpensive straps and charging little or nothing for the simplest repairs. “We carry a selection of wrist straps that nobody in the country carries. It’s time-consuming and a big investment, but it just builds confidence. I’ve had people who look like they don’t have two nickels to rub together and they come in and ask you to size a watch they got as a gift, and you do it for free in two minutes—and those customers have turned into $100,000 customers. Everybody gets treated the same, even if it’s a $2 screw.”
The odds in any family business suggest that when things get to the fourth generation—represented by Scott this year, the 100th anniversary of his great-grandfather emigrating to America as a watch repairman—interest in continuing the biz among the youngest folk starts to wane. But that’s hardly the case here.
“This is really a dream situation, because Scott lives and breathes this thing,” says Sol. “He’s made me proud” with the redesign. “He’s a lot more knowledgeable than I ever was, to be honest. To me, it was making a living, and is the price range right? Is our investment proper? Are we going to eat it in the end? To me it was never the passion that it is for him. He gets thrilled about a certain caliber of movement. We’ll go on a trip, and I’ll be reading a spy novel and he’ll be reading four watch magazines.”
Although Scott clearly couldn’t be more pleased with the results of what he set in motion, he’s exhausted enough to sound almost as unsure about it at the end of the two-year process as his father did at the beginning. “I’ve got a lot of years left, but one thing I’ll never do again is a project like this,” he says. “Obviously, you constantly have to put fresh paint on the walls, but nothing ever to this level again. If the business is still thriving and my son wants to do it, then God bless him. This is it for me.”