By JENNIFER BLOT
For a small retailer to survive in San Francisco for 40 years — and rebound from earthquake and fire — takes something more than luck. For Union Street Goldsmith, scheduled to reopen November 14 after a fire in early June shut down its longtime Union Street home, the key to longevity is no mystery. It’s having loyal customers.
Founded in 1976 by jewelry designers Glenda Queen and Terry Brumbaugh, the shop developed a fierce word-of-mouth following for its approachable style and high-end selection of fine colored gemstones, high carat gold bangles, stackable rings and custom creations. And so when news spread that a fire had destroyed the store, the phone calls and cards began to flood in.
Brumbaugh recalls running into a customer at a cafe in mid-summer when he was in the process of signing a lease for a new storefront at 2118 Union Street, just two blocks from the former location. “A customer from Mill Valley comes in and says, ‘Oh my god, I heard what happened to you. Just tell me when you open and what to buy.’ Now that is a good customer,” he says.
Good customers — and the fact that the store’s inventory survived the fire unscathed — are what Brumbaugh calls the “silver lining” of a devastating summer that would also bring an even greater loss: Queen’s death in August.
Brumbaugh bursts into tears when talking about Queen, who was both a business partner and a close friend since his “hippie days” in Sausalito in the early 1970s. A lover of ancient coins and fine tourmaline, Queen’s vision guided the store from day one. She used rose gold before it became trendy and fashioned engagement rings from magnificent colored stones. Her husband will continue to be a partner in the business and the employees she helped handpick over the years will still produce and sell her signature designs. Loyalty is a common theme with the store — members of the staff of a dozen commute from as far away as Vallejo and Danville, and the “newest” hire came on board 13 years ago.
Though Union Street has ushered in many businesses over the years, it has always boasted a group of jewelry stores. “People say, ‘You have so much competition.’ I don’t look at it that way,” says Brumbaugh. “Time is precious, let’s face it, and the more people can shop one street for a specific thing, the better.”
Union Street Goldsmith was displaced once before by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Brumbaugh is the first to admit he relies on his repeat clientele and wouldn’t want to open a brand new store in today’s economy. When he graduated from gemology school nearly 45 years ago, there were only about 1,000 certified gemologists worldwide. Today, he says, that number is off the charts.
Brumbaugh, 67, grew up in the jewelry business. His father, a watchmaker and jeweler, allowed him to take old jewelry mountings and experiment with tools and torches at an early age. At 11, he created his first piece of wearable art: a pendant for his mother he fondly remembers as “a gold blob.” He is still enamored with gold, particularly 18 and 22 carat, which he prefers for its heft and rich color.
Brumbaugh is also known for his knack for repurposing stones and settings.
“He is a magician; he is amazing,” says Carla Himy, a customer for more than 20 years who has purchased at least a dozen new pieces of jewelry and had at least that many redesigned from vintage family heirlooms.
Himy, a Marin-based wardrobe and style consultant, says she has introduced family members and clients to his work over the years. “That’s what happens with Terry: You develop a relationship — all of my clients have. He’s very smart and he’s very patient and extremely creative.”
Even a casual visitor gets a sense of Brumbaugh’s warmth and charisma. With all of the city’s changes, there’s something familiar and comforting about his presence. And it’s evident in the number of passersby who pop in for a hello or a hug.
Marina resident Candace Mackenzie says she’s been shopping at the store since it opened.
“They offer a contemporary, clean-line aesthetic that appeals to me,” she says. “I have many favorite pieces but my sensational, custom wedding ring featuring a floating diamond has received frequent compliments from acquaintances and strangers for the past 35 years.”
Engagement rings and wedding bands still make up much of the store’s business — but with a new twist, thanks to the wave of same-sex marriages.
Brumbaugh strives to make customers feel at home the moment they walk in. “I’m not a high pressure sales person,” he says. “I go with my heart.”
Filed under: Retail Report