Talking with Jim Gerster: A whole lot of love out there
Jim Gerster is feeling the love this month. With Valentine's Day come and gone Gerster Jewelers is in the middle of one of the best Februaries in its history.
At 90 years, that's a lot of history. The downtown Farmington jewelry store is one of the city's oldest current businesses and, now in its third generation of Gersters, it's still going strong.
We talked with Gerster this week about the store's history, the changes that have taken place in recent years and, of course, the love.
How many generations of Gersters have been in the business?
My grandpa started it in, it'll be April 1, 1920, I guess, when he officially opened the doors. He was in business a little earlier than that.... Actually, in the old days Farmington had two jewelry stores. When he got out of World War I he bought out one. He bought out the second one, that would have been probably in 1919. Then he built a new building kind of down where the VF is and moved in there on April 1, 1920, so I guess we've always referred to that as our official opening day.
Was it always kind of a straightforward jewelry store?
Well, back in the old days everybody kind of had dual or tri purposes. He initially was an optometrist and a jewelry store at the same time. That's kind of what they did. Kind of like morticians and furniture salesmen were the same. And that's what he did for a long time. And then, when my dad got out of the Korean War, that would have been in the 50s somewhere, he went into the business and that's when it separated slightly because my dad went fully into the jewelry part and my grandpa went more fully into the optometrist part, though he still helped out. That's where the real separation came. Then I came in here in the 1980s and I've been here ever since.
Was it sort of, you were always going to go into the family business?
I came about it in kind of a humongous circle in the sense that I really was never involved in it in high school nor college nor my post-college. I actually worked on a farm and painted houses in high school and during the summers in college I worked up in Ely, in the Boundary Waters. When I graduated college I went out and took a job with a company for a while and didn't really like it so I quit and went back up to the woods until I was 28 years old. I Ieft the woods after that and traveled around the country for about a year. That's when my dad said, what are you planning to do with your life? I'm getting to the age when most people are already settled and I'm debating on whether I go back up to the woods or travel again and he said, give it a shot, that way you know because none of my other siblings were interested. He bought me a suit and I came on in and I've been here ever since. I guess I liked it.
What do you like about it?
The one nice thing I like about this is, even though we're a business, just maybe because we've been here so long people come in all day long to chat. It's a place where it's maybe a common ground for the hub gossip. A lot of it is based on fact. Not all of it, but a lot of it. It's a place where people feel comfortable coming in just to talk. Find out how the fishing has been or what's going on or who's going where and they don't feel like they have to buy anything and I like that. It's a social life as well as a business life and the people are fun to hang out with. It's a whole different setting, I'm going to guess, than most retail places of any sort. I think anybody who's ever been here will go, oh my god. The experience is worth it once at least. There's a lot going on.
Has the business changed much since you got into it ?
Oh, a lot. Even in the 80s when I got in here there was a lot of towns that weren't that big. Apple Valley is what it is now. Lakeville is half what it was. There wasn't as much competition as there is now and now you're also dealing with onlines and ebay and pawn shops and a lot of venues that weren't there. It made your whole business concept a little bit more straightforward. They came in. They were willing to wait. I think people are busier now and not willing to wait so you have to buy better now and you have to have stuff. You have to understand your competition so you can beat them and you've got to understand your clientele so you know how to buy and you've got to have some degree of luck and hope you bought and understand everything accurately.... We're also in a business where, if you can't sit down and see it you don't know what you're getting.
Is there something that's particularly popular here?
One thing that's separated us from the others, we do a good business in loose diamonds. Half carat, two carat or better. That's really kind of an area that we got to be known for.
Do you know why that is?
I think word of mouth helps get around. I think the fact we've been here so long our overhead is zero and the fact I can buy direct. I don't have to go through any middleman. I can get diamonds right from the source. I think when you put all those together, I can compete with anyone. And the fact we've been here 90 years, people know if they get something now their great grandkids could still be seeing a Gerster when they come back. We in some cases run fourth to fifth generation.
How was Valentine's Day? Is that always a busy time for you?
The economy has made things different. I would say traditionally Christmas would be our biggest, followed by Mother's Day, followed by Valentine's.... Christmas this year was average. Very similar to last year. Ironically, last February, last Valentine's, was the best February we've had in our entire existence. This February, a very similar thing. It's truly phenomenal, the sales, which don't make sense sometimes.... I credit that to several things. People are used to seeing on the news that things are going down the toilet.... I think that's what happened. We're hearing it's all doom and gloom and at Christmastime you're buying for 15 people sometimes. Then you're starting to get your taxes done and you realize it's not as bad as I thought. You're getting refunds or things went a little better than they thought....There are some positive signs and now you're buying for one person, maybe two. And so now they're going, OK, things aren't so bad, I'm going to get them something to show I really love them.... I think there's still a lot of love out there.