Mixed Emotions

Sam Spear’s looking out the window of his house in Del Ray Beach. Actually, he’s watching his friends play golf. Vicarious thrill? Uh-uh. Today he feels a twinge of envy. His back’s out and the weather’s lousy. He’s been in the pool exactly twice since New Year’s.

“You don’t wanna come to Florida this time of year.”

Right after Christmas, Spear bid his two-store jewelry business goodbye. Twenty-four employees surprised him with a party at a French restaurant, a fete intended not so much to send Spear into retirement as to celebrate his 50 years of owning and operating Wayne Jewelers in Wayne, Pa. Then it was Florida. And when he and his wife Marcia get back, no more store to go to.

If you talk to Sam Spear, you might notice an accent. An occasional Slavic click of consonants rubbing together. An omitted “a,” “an” or “the” before a noun. Traces of the Polish he once spoke and now hardly knows.

He left Poland in 1938, at 15. A year before Hitler’s tanks rolled across the border. “Everybody was going away. I was Jewish, and the handwriting was on the wall. That’s why I’m here, talking to you now.” Both parents died in the war, his father of old age, his mother at Treblinka.

Fortunately for Spear, he had older brothers in America, both in the jewelry business. One manufactured out of Providence, the other owned a store in Cumberland, Md. They met him at the harbor in New York.

“I knew one word in English: ‘Hi.’”

Spear cleaned cases in the Cumberland store. Eventually his brother sent him to Bowman’s, a jewelry school in Lancaster, Pa. He studied engraving, stone setting, watchmaking and jewelry repair. After graduating, he worked on Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia.

In 1942, Spear joined up to fight Hitler. The Army assigned him to a company which followed tank battalions, cleaning and repairing instruments.

“I volunteered to fight the Germans and I wound up fighting the mosquitoes.”

A few years after the war, while driving through Philadelphia’s upscale Main Line suburbs, he stopped at a traffic light in Wayne, Pa., where he noticed a sign on a store window. “Auction: Jewelry Cases & Fixtures.” He started asking about it. Vendors told him it had once been a good business, but the owner gambled and ran around.

After he bought it, he had little capital left and had to pick inventory items carefully. He waited on customers, repaired jewelry, did the books. A “one man operation.” Ten years later, intuition directed him to a corner location that proved to be the best retail space in town. He added more lines.

“A full-service store was the way to go. You can’t be anything but the best type of jeweler in a town like Wayne.”

At various times, he’s owned three stores and a mail order business. His biggest gripe remains unfair competition from discounters, such as department store chains. Ten years ago he took out ads in the local paper: “Sixty percent off of WHAT?”

“Thirty years ago, a jeweler was a professional. People depended on his knowledge. We relied on repeat business. And people either bought an item, or they didn’t.”

Today, “they look at something and say: ‘what’s the best price?’”

Sam Spear retired for two reasons. A steadily worsening back problem, which prevented his being able to stand too long in the store. And the fact that he was able to find a buyer who’d “keep the name, the quality and the people.

“So I’m happy.”

He walks, swims, works out three times a week. Everything but golf. Occasionally he’s thought about going back to Poland with his wife, just to see what’s left. Mixed emotions.

“Most likely every place I would remember is torn down.”

Spear, now 76, says, “I found out the golden years are not golden. Everybody plans to take it easy when they retire. Of course, some of them never retire. Going to work is all they enjoy. If you can afford to retire early and enjoy life while you have good health, do it.”