Roberts Jeweler is a two-family affair

Frances Roberts, who owned Roberts Jeweler from 1946-75, and daughter, Rita Rowe. - JESSE BEALS/Staff Photo
Frances Roberts, who owned Roberts Jeweler from 1946-75, and daughter, Rita Rowe.
— image credit: JESSE BEALS/Staff Photo

The business was owned by one Roberts clan, then another.

It’s not every day that people walk up and hand you their watch, but for Dot Roberts and Gail Yette, it’s not strange at all.

“Customers have handed us jewelry and watches in the street,” said Yette, manager of Roberts Jeweler. “They’re so confident in us, it’s kind of nice.”

Dot Roberts still owns the store, which she and her late husband, O.K. Roberts, took over 30 years ago from Frances Roberts and her late husband Bill, who owned it for 29 years prior.

Regardless of which Roberts stood behind the counter, customer service has always been the motto of the business in the chalet-like building on Winslow Way – owned by two generations of Roberts families that are, curiously, unrelated.

Bill and Frances Roberts moved to the island in 1946 and purchased a building and meat locker on Winslow Way for $17,500. Back when families would buy a side of beef at a time, islanders rented space in the locker to keep their meat cold, and the resourceful Bill learned meat-cutting.

Their daughter, Rita Rowe, “grew up under the counter,” and recalls sneaking bits of raw hamburger to eat.

The couple also rented out the front space. Frank Wick sold doughnuts, soft ice cream and coffee at a soda fountain, its curved counter made by Bill.

To make the monthly $100 mortgage payment, Bill ran a bulldozer while Frances watched the shop. He graded the ferry parking lot, Commodore School and Bloedel Reserve.

How did the jewelry store come about? Master watchmaker Lloyd Henning, who also rented a corner in the building, didn’t like to fix clocks, and taught Bill Roberts that skill. It wasn’t long before Bill also learned to fix watches.

When asked how he was able to perform such seemingly incompatible skills, Frances recalls, Bill replying: “Wheels are wheels, some are just bigger than others.”

When Henning left, Bill and Frances took over the watch repair and the one case of jewelry.

In the community, Bill and Frances were members of the Eagle Harbor Congregational Church for 47 years. Bill also doubled as the church’s resident repair man. Later, Rita was the church organist for 40 years.

Bill remodeled the store from its original square front to the chalet-like style it is today and concentrated on jewelry and watches.

Customer service was what really mattered.

“They went that extra mile to give the best customer service,” Rowe said. “She made weekly trips to the city (Seattle) to find, or as close as possible, what they wanted.”

“We just wanted to do the best we could,” Frances said.

At Christmas time, gift-wrapping was free, and Frances made a Christmas tree of chicken wire covered in bows.

Rita helped out at the store when she was older and after learning to play organ in seventh grade, her parents would bring it to the store around the holidays and she’d play for shoppers.

“The busy bustle and wrapping packages was kind of nightmarish,” Rowe said, “but the customers, they were all so friendly.”

Frances remembers in particular a woman who brought in a metal vase with a broken handle to be fixed. Bill mistook the type of metal, and in trying to solder the handle back on caused the vase to melt down.

“He felt awful,” Frances said, and apologized for the accident.

Surprisingly, the woman came back a few days later and gave them a camellia bush.

“She felt so bad for him feeling so bad,” Frances said. The camellia still grows next to her house.

The personal relationship with customers did not change when the new Roberts took over the business in 1975.

Customers “share their personal lives with us,” Yette said. “Most of our customers, we know what grade they’re in, whose getting married and then we hear about the wedding things.

“You see a customer come in with a baby in a stroller and now that ‘tot’ is asking us for a battery in their watch.”

The items sold have not changed so much. Fine china – now English Spode and Wedgewood or Turkish wares – jewelry, special occasion gifts and watches and repairs are still in demand. And like her predecessor, Dot Roberts still takes special orders and buys for the store, taking care to only get unique and high quality goods she would want in her own home.

And like Frances, Dot didn’t know that much about jewelry when she took on the business. Tired of the driving to a franchise she held in Poulsbo, her husband heard that Bill and Frances were selling and asked, “How’d you like a jewelry store?”

Dot ran the business, as her husband was busy with his general contracting work.

Today, in an age of 24-hour retail, Roberts Jeweler still closes on Sunday.

“I wouldn’t open on Sunday because I think people should be at home with their family,” Dot said. “It’s a day you don’t need to go shopping.”

The store also makes a point of hiring high school students.

“I had three daughters, and finding a summer job is hard,” Dot said by way of explanation, but more than just ringing up sales, she brings her young charges with her on merchandise-buying trips. Often, former workers will return with their kids or go on to work in the jewelry industry.

“They do everything we do,” she said, “merchandising, learning the difference between china and porcelain and minor jewelry repair.”

Now living in Seattle, Dot only comes in three days a week.

But, she said, “after all these years I’m still going. It’s hard to give up. I have no plans to retire yet.”

* * * * *

Corner shop

Roberts Jeweler is located at 194 Winslow Way East. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and is closed Sunday. Phone: 842-3464.

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