NOTEBOOK

Small Town Thing

The sign flaps over the new maroon awning at Tuttle Jewelry in Angola, Ind. “Going Out of Business. Everything Must Go.” Inside, it’s the last day of the 33% Off Sale. Multiple signs fastened with masking tape to the pink walls scream “33% Off Everything.” People point at rings or lean over display cases. Tomorrow, it’ll be 50% off, but nobody’s thought that far ahead.

“I need to see John.”

A middle-aged man and his teenage son stand by the back door.

John Gutermuth comes out. He’s in his early 40s. He has a boyish face; thick, silver curls; black sneakers. Gutermuth stands over the jewelry case with the man and his son. Their class ring discussion takes 15 minutes. The man and his son get up to leave.

“I heard you’re going out of business,” says the man.

“Yeah, we are,” says Gutermuth.

“What’re you gonna do?”

Gutermuth pauses. “I’m going to just spend some time with my kids.” Twin blond girls, 6 years old, smile gleefully from a Polaroid taped to the safe. The man wishes him luck and leaves.

“I get that a hundred times a day,” says Gutermuth, sighing. “Same thing, over and over. They all want to know for themselves. That small town thing.”

So what do you tell them?

“I tell ’em I’m tired of working 80 or 90 hours a week. Dropping my kids off at day care.”

He isn’t completely sure what he’s going to do. But it won’t be retail jewelry. Manage his rental properties. Maybe set up an Internet site and sell diamonds wholesale. Maybe some estate jewelry. He could do trade work.

Gutermuth majored in electronic engineering at Purdue University, but with the background of a part-time jewelry store job in high school (“I was kind of like the maintenance man”), he finally decided to study horology at Gem City College in Quincy, Ill.

He followed a buddy from watchmaking school out to California in 1985. Ended up grading diamonds at the Gemological Institute of America lab in Santa Monica. Then, in 1988, he “heard through the grapevine” that Tuttle Jewelry was for sale.

There’s been a jewelry store where Tuttle Jewelry stands since 1920. It’s been Tuttle Jewelry since 1940. “I took on six figures worth of debt to buy the place.” He paid the debt off last year.

Those first years (’89 and ’90) were lean ones for many people in the jewelry industry. But Gutermuth quadrupled the business by “doing all the things nobody else would do. Custom work in-house. Manufacturing in-house. Watch repair on the premises.

“People bring in costume earrings. They want to change them from clipped to pierced. Or they want a chain fixed. It’s purely a service. You don’t make any money on it. But you’re creating the foot traffic.”

He learned good employees aren’t that easy to find. Not many people are “self-motivated,” he says.

“I’ve had six goldsmiths in 11 years.” The problem? “They didn’t want to do the small things that are important in a small town.”

He also discovered 15 to 20 repair jobs a day can become “a tiger by the tail.

“If you wouldn’t fix something, it was: Well, I’ll just have to buy my jewelry somewhere else! So you end up doing the service work between retail hours. I was buried in it.”

There were few vacations. “I’ve never had a Saturday off.”

A few years ago, a virus laid Gutermuth up for three months. When he returned to the store, “the numbers were way off” and “I had to pretty much fire everybody.” That’s when he started thinking about getting out. Last January, he stopped repairing watches. “People were livid.” He took a trip to California this spring and thought about it more. A month later, he called the newspaper and the radio station and told them he wanted to change his Memorial Day ads. To Going Out of Business Sale ads.

At the counter, an employee carefully removes a pair of diamond earrings from the pink velvet interior of a Tuttle Jewelry box. A woman, her mother, and her daughter all watch. The woman looks up.

“Is it true you’re going out of business?” she asks.