A clockmaker stays in one place for half a century, repairing the rhythm of our lives
By Aaron Belz
I’m wearing a watch that wouldn’t have much value to you: a $50 Seiko purchased at Filene’s Basement in Portland, Maine, in August 1992. I remember choosing this watch because of its gold trim; I wanted a timepiece that complemented my wedding ring. I was on my honeymoon, after all.
This Seiko, with all its personal and historical implications, languished in a desk drawer, broken, for almost five years. I couldn’t afford the $85 a downtown jeweler estimated that it would take to repair it, so I put it away. Recently I took it to Joseph Skabla, owner of Universal Watch & Clock Repair, a curious shop in Tower Grove open only on Saturday. He repaired it for $25, cursing the “big jewelers” who don’t understand the fundamentals of horology (the art of making instruments for indicating time). He said that they like to lubricate watches with organic oil, which tends to gum up the gears. He told me that he’s the only true clockmaker left in St. Louis and that he’s been at it for more than 50 years.
South City is full of such shops. F.W. Clemens Building Materials, on Gravois, has been in business since 1878, and its original buildings are still visible inside a slightly newer façade. The well-worn floors and elderly clerks disguise a business that is anything but antiquated: a young man in a bulldozer will dump a ton gravel or sand in the bed of your pickup within minutes of your paying for it. When I bought a house at the corner of Hartford and Spring almost two years ago (quite recently, by F.W. Clemens standards) the same young man filled my pickup’s bed numerous times, and I was able to build a retaining wall that drains rainwater almost instantly. I wondered how many times owners of this 102-year-old home had visited F.W. Clemens.
Last summer, with my Honda’s odometer nearing 200,000 miles, I bought a hail-damaged Toyota Camry from a fellow who couldn’t bear the sight of little dimples all over his vehicle. It had 85,000 miles on it (only a few, by Camry standards) and was gold, also matching my wedding ring, but the rear suspension clunked on speed bumps and potholes in an annoying way. I asked around and discovered Niebling Auto Repair—an outfit that has been fixing South St. Louis’ wagons, carriages and cars since 1887. That’s 20 years before Ford began rolling Model T’s off its first assembly line in Dearborn, Mich. Niebling replaced my rear axle bushing for $75. If I ever get into an accident, I’ll take my car to Niebling Auto Body, builders of the first Mack trucks back in 1905 (when Mack Bros. of Allentown, Pa., was less than three years old).
I don’t mean to make a big deal about companies that have a long history, as though that were the only reason to patronize them. But there’s something about a long history, especially a long local history under independent ownership, that implies commitment to craft and place. You feel this most acutely, perhaps, when you walk into a Jiffy Lube, where you may or may not get great service (a Jiffy Lube in Nashville ruined my sister’s Honda) and where, sitting in the waiting room, you’re not sure what part of the country you’re in. We all know the feeling of walking into a vast Sam’s or Home Depot and sensing that we may be in Philadelphia. If you don’t, I beg you to try it: Stand in line at any McDonald’s and imagine that you’re on vacation in Tulsa.
The thing is, we want to live where we live, not in some generic anytown. This is one of the reasons for the Ted Drewes phenomenon. Standing in line at Ted Drewes is an utterly unique experience; you can literally smell South St. Louis, see streets lined with bungalows, hear Cardinals broadcasts emanating from car windows. You can see one of our city’s finest loitering, as though he had something to do there other than love the fact that he works in that precinct. I’ve never actually seen a cop twirling a nightstick, but I would not be surprised to see such a thing at Ted Drewes on South Grand.
New businesses can fit this profile, too. A&M Cyclery on Arsenal, with superknowledgeable Karl Becker behind the counter, turns around bike repairs lightning quick. Eric Woods’ Firecracker Press—a boutique print shop on Chippewa, all jobs done on site—produces some of the highest quality letterpress work I’ve seen anywhere. Shaw Coffee on the Hill beats the heck out of any area Starbucks. Tom Schlafly’s two microbrewery restaurants have become an institution since Schlafly Beer was launched in 1991. Granted, they aren’t Ruby Tuesday and they definitely aren’t Chili’s, but I quite enjoy the English ploughman’s plate at the Tap Room. And hey, finally: a great local brew.
In the end, it’s not merely a question of which vendors provide the best products and services at the lowest cost but a question of which of them have real people standing behind them saying, “This is my trade, and I’m proud of it.” Which of them want not only to repair my Seiko but also to educate me on the finer points of horology. Which of them, in other words, strike a balance between craft and community.