After 25 years, Armstrong Jewelers prepares to close
BENNINGTON — Kevin Armstrong lived his dream of having a jewelry store on Main Street for nearly a quarter century.
After he died from cancer in November 2016, his wife, Susan, and his store manager of seven years, Lynn Cushing, kept Armstrong Jewelers running, despite the loss of their talented jewelry maker. They created more jewelry using Kevin's extensive gemstone collection, selling all but one pair of ruby earrings.
Then, this October, sales plummeted to the point of no return.
It was then that Susan Armstrong decided that the business could no longer stay afloat. She made the difficult decision to shutter the business before the end of 2018. Armstrong Jewelers will begin its going-out-of-business sale today, offering increased discounts on fine jewelry, jewelry making tools, fixtures, and other items until the business closes permanently Saturday, Dec. 29.
Every month since Kevin's passing, his wife was happy the store was breaking even and making enough money to cover expenses.
"Then, all of the sudden, in October — October second — it was like D-Day for us," Armstrong said.
"It's like somebody flipped a switch," Cushing added.
"It just stopped," Armstrong said. "We don't understand it."
There would have been no question about continuing the business for longer if profits were adequate, Armstrong said.
Armstrong added that the month of October is typically a slower time for business, but 2018 brought a different kind of struggle with a rather bleak outlook.
"We could get through slow times, but we couldn't get through just stopped," Armstrong said. "It is ridiculous."
Armstrong's brother is a financial planner, and she sought his advice. She repeated his catchphrase: "Cut your losses; don't let it build."
"As soon as we saw this we knew it wasn't going to work," Armstrong said. "We kept thinking, `oh, it'll get better.' But it didn't. It's weird. It's a mystery."
Coming to Bennington
Armstrong Jewelers opened July 1, 1993 after Kevin Armstrong learned that Bennington's local jeweler was about to retire.
The purchase wasn't on a whim: Kevin had a long history with jewelry making. In high school, he dabbled in soldering metals in his parent's garage. It wasn't long before he became an apprentice jeweler at a shop in Springfield, Mass.
"He really had a talent for it," said Susan Armstrong.
After this apprenticeship, he joined a remount company, where he and a salesman would travel to stores and set up a jewelers' bench in the jewelry department. Here, people would bring in their jewelry for him to take out the precious stones and remount them in a different setting, all while they waited.
When the Armstrongs moved to Vermont, Kevin continued to do jewelry repair and special order custom work, but his real dream was to have his own retail jewelry store.
That dream came true one year as he rode the ski lift in Killington with local business owner Jay Zwynenburg, who informed him there was a jewelry store up for sale in the small town of Bennington. "And that's how we ended up in Bennington," Armstrong said. "He really lived the dream of having his own store on Main Street."
"An outstanding jeweler"
Armstrong described her husband's jewelry making skills as "another world" of craftsmanship. Many times the untrained eye could not even see the details Kevin added that made his jewelry unique, said Armstrong. For example, he would groove the inside of the prongs that held the gemstones to ensure a long-lasting piece of jewelry.
"One of his lines was: `Dedicated to quality: The beauty is in the details,'" she said. "He was an outstanding jeweler."
"He was meticulous," Cushing said.
Armstrong created fine jewelry from high-quality gold or platinum metals. His wife says he kept everything high-end, simple, and beautiful— not ostentatious and gaudy.
"He really made a great reputation for himself," she said. "People came from far and wide to see Kevin."
Before Kevin died, Cushing remembers him telling her "Lynnie, I'm coming back." The longtime jeweler believed he would return to his beloved Main Street jewelry store to continue his craft. But when he ultimately passed away, his wife and Cushing admitted they initially did not know what to do.
"How did we do it? How did we decide to keep going?" Armstrong asked Cushing.
"Well Susan, we're too stubborn to give up," Cushing said.
Susan beamed and laughed: "Oh yeah, I forgot!"
"Plus, what else do you do?" she asked. "You just keep marching forward."
Despite the loss of their jeweler, Armstrong Jewelers stayed open. They hosted art shows and opening parties to keep customers coming in. Last winter, Armstrong's neighbor and friend Kevin Quinn repainted the entire store to reinvigorate the space, and his wife, Lloyde, assisted with decoration— all for free.
"It was such an amazing gift to be given," Armstrong said. "We couldn't afford anything like that."
Throughout the time Armstrong Jewelers stayed open after Kevin's passing, they utilized his immense collection of gemstones and mountings to create more jewelry. For two years, his wife picked out stones and mountings from his collection to keep inventory flowing.
Shortly before Armstrong decided to give up the business, she advertised in New York City for a jeweler with hopes that a talented jeweler may want to escape the rat race of the big city and come work in Bennington. She said she hoped that if a jeweler was hired at Armstrong, they would be able to rebuild the business and eventually buy it from her.
Unfortunately, no viable candidates came forward and Armstrong knew it was time to let the store go. While she says she is not exactly sure why business dropped off so quickly, she has noticed many other private jewelry stores going out of business due to many people buying online instead. Also, she says, younger generations are not as interested in gems and fine jewelry.
Since Armstrong rents the store's space, it will most likely be listed for rent again after Armstrong Jewelers is closed.
During the going out of business sale, Armstrong says she expects to offer discounts of around 25 percent off to start, then gradually increase the discount as it gets closer to the closing date. Not only is she selling the rest of the inventory of jewelry, she will attempt to sell her husband's jewelry making tools and equipment.
However, Armstrong and Cushing have a message for potential buyers: "We aren't desperate," Cushing said.
Armstrong wants to avoid having people wait until the last day to snag items at a deep discount, potentially just to resell them. Whatever she doesn't sell, she plans to drive it to her Woodford home in a truck and list the items on eBay or Craigslist.
"There are certain things in my life I've never done," Armstrong said. "This is one of them. I've never gone out of business before. How do people do this? What happens?"
Despite the sorrow of closing a business she's been involved in for so long, Armstrong looks back at fond memories made at the 437 Main St. location.
The summer before he died, Kevin said he wanted a New Orleans jazz bands to march down Main Street and play "When the Saints Go Marching In." So the store did just that.
"We had a smashing big party," Armstrong said. "Everybody was telling their Kevin stories. There were over a hundred people here and it was beautiful. He really had a lot of people who loved his work."
Armstrong says it was a "wonderful" experience to meet all of the people who came to her husband for jewelry over the years.
"It's so special to work in a small town where everybody knows your name," she said. "It's so fun."
Christie Wisniewski can be reached at email@example.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.
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