Business

Herman Ginsberg retiring after 71 years at Ginsberg Jewelers' helm in Cedar Rapids

Jeweler joined the family business in 1948 - but he is staying on the job

Herman Ginsberg started working at the family business in 1948. He is the third generation to run the business which will be taken over by his son, Steve. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Herman Ginsberg started working at the family business in 1948. He is the third generation to run the business which will be taken over by his son, Steve. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Seventy-one years after he joined Ginsberg Jewelers, Herman Ginsberg has announced his retirement. But don’t be surprised if you find him at the Cedar Rapids store.

“I’m retiring on paper,” Ginsberg said. “I cannot stay home and look at the four walls.

“My wife (Phyllis Ginsberg) died in 2000 and that would really kill me.”

Ginsberg, the third generation of his family to own Ginsberg Jewelers, joined the business in 1948 after serving in World War II and finishing college.

“I enlisted (in the U.S. Army Air Corps) when I was 16, but they wouldn’t take me until I was 17,” recalled Ginsberg, now 93. “I skipped my high school graduation and started summer school at the University of Iowa.

“I was called up in September 1943. I couldn’t wait to get in and the day I got in, I couldn’t wait to get out.”

He graduated from the University of Iowa in June 1948. Ginsberg recalled that his graduation ceremony occurred on a rainy Saturday morning.

“Our car flooded out on the way to Amana for lunch,” he said. “We drove back up to Cedar Rapids that afternoon.

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“When we got to the store, the front door was locked. It should not have been locked at 3 or 4 on a Saturday afternoon.

“My father had one women employee. When he unlocked the door, he found a key and a note that said, ‘I quit.’ I went to work that day and I’ve been here ever since.”

While Ginsberg has stayed active in the business, his son, Steve, 59, has taken over day-to-day operations.

Steve joined the family business in 1993, after working at the Gemological Institute of America in New York as a diamond grader and supervisor of client relations at GIA’s Gem Trade Laboratory.

“The thing I’m looking forward to is Herman’s stepping back to see the forest and the trees, seeing how I am handling things, and yet still be available for counsel,” he said. “To me, that’s a really important involvement for the older generation.

“Physically being here on site is really important to him, so at the least he can watch the activity and see what’s going on.”

Steve said he is not a fan of isolation to reduce the risk of falling or any other kind of health issue.

“I’m OK with reasonable risk to get him from one place to another,” Steve said. “Certainly he has made no bones about the store being important to his quality of life.”

Courting and business

Ginsberg Jewelers traces its history to the arrival in 1887 of Charles Ginsberg in New York harbor as a 14-year-old from Russia with experience and savvy in repairing clocks. Family lore has it that Ginsberg walked from New York to Minneapolis to connect with distant relatives.

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After uniting with his relatives, Ginsberg began peddling his wares and services door to door and town to town, making his way down the Missouri River to Council Bluffs.

Ginsberg met his future wife, Sarah Stein, who was working as a live-in maid for a family where he was living as a boarder. The couple married in 1897 and had four children — Isadore (Izzy), Thelma, Elliott and Annette.

Charles Ginsberg opened his first storefront business in Leavenworth, Kan., in about 1900. He moved the store and his family to Kansas City, Mo., shortly after. believing the larger community was more prosperous and commercially active.

“My father, Izzy, stayed in school until he completed sixth grade,” Herman said. “My grandfather needed his help to support the family.”

Izzy tried his hand at a variety of jobs. but his favorite was working on a section of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad line between Kansas City and St. Louis. The job excited him because it took him outside of his childhood surroundings selling peanuts, popcorn, newspapers and cigars.

Sedalia, Mo. — the midway stop on the railroad line — was a vibrant community. When Izzy came of age and his parents no longer needed his financial help, he moved to Sedalia and opened a pawnshop.

Izzy moved his father’s storefront from Leavenworth, Kan., to Sedalia after World War I.

After hearing about Rose Alport, a Kansas City bank teller and meeting her, Izzy began traveling between Sedalia and Kansas City to court her. The couple married in 1925 and settled down in Sedalia where they had three sons — Herman, Louis and Stanley.

Billy the Wonder Boy

In the late 1920s, Izzy brought his younger brother, Elliott, into the business.

Elliott loved traveling and did much of it in the Midwest on behalf of their business. He would pack the car with items from the pawnshop and sell directly to other businesses and individuals in small towns.

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In 1930, Elliott heard that the recently widowed owner of Rozen’s Jewelry in Cedar Rapids wanted to sell her inventory. He told Izzy of his find and desire to stay in Cedar Rapids, but Izzy convinced Elliott that he should be in Cedar Rapids rather than Elliott.

Izzy had a family to feed, Elliott was still single and Cedar Rapids was a larger town with a more active business center than Sedalia.

“My father had a letter of credit for $2,500 from the Third National Bank in Sedalia,” Herman Ginsberg said. “The letter was addressed to Frank Welch, who was the president of Peoples Bank in Cedar Rapids.

“When my father visited Rozen’s Jewelry, he learned that the owner wanted to sell the entire business, not just the inventory. He really didn’t think it was worth more than $200, but she must have learned about the letter of credit and wanted the exact amount — $2,500.”

While Izzy was pondering whether to buy Rozen’s Jewelry, he noticed a loud and large crowd of people on Second Avenue SE in downtown Cedar Rapids. He followed the throng to the third floor of a department store where a 10-year-old boy was answering questions shouted by the crowd.

“The boy had been performing under the name Billy the Wonder Boy, a predictor of events, traveling on the Orpheum & Albee circuit,” Herman said. “My father decided to join the fray, pushing his way to the center of the crowd and shouted, ‘Should I buy it?’

“’Buy it, buy it’ was the response from Billy. When my father asked, ‘Buy what?’ Billy answered, ‘Hock shop, hock shop, where you take your watch.’”

Elliott Ginsberg returned to the family business in Sedalia and Izzy moved his family later that year to Cedar Rapids.

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“When my father arrived in Cedar Rapids, he thought he was in Paris compared to Sedalia,” Herman said. “During his initial visit, he toured the town and was impressed to find a thriving retail and business center as well as a much larger Jewish population

“It wasn’t until he actually moved to Cedar Rapids that he discovered most of the ‘Jewish’ names in town were actually of Czech heritage.”

Izzy moved the store and launched an “Amateur Hour” with a live band in the back of the business. Spectators were forced to pass by the store’s merchandise as they entered and left the store.

Herman grew up in the family business, recalling arriving at the store at noon just in time to be recruited to play an accordion for Izzy’s daily radio broadcast.

Over the years, Ginsberg Jewelers moved to several different locations in downtown Cedar Rapids. After the 2008 flood, the store moved from 219 Second Ave. SE to temporary quarters in Twixt Town Shopping Center.

In 2010, Ginsberg Jewelers moved to a new 2,400-square-foot building at 4647 First Ave. SE in Marketplace on First near Lindale Mall.

“Our decision not to return downtown had more to do with the economic cycles of retailing in the downtown area than the economics of rebuilding from a flood,” Steve Ginsberg said.

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