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Local jeweler looks to the past and future in business

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | MARCH 04, 2013 5:00 AM

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From peeling potatoes and fixing clocks during high school to owning a nearly 70-year-old downtown retail store, Willa Dickens has seen it all — at least in the language of jewelry.

Dickens, who co-owns Herteen & Stocker Jewelers, 101 S. Dubuque St., said he began working at the now-former Fuiks Jewelers, 220 E. Washington St., at the age of 14 in the early 1940s. At the time, he made 25 cents an hour.

“It was the kind of work I wanted to do,” he said. “A lot of people have asked, ‘How could you work in a jewelry store?’ Even the ordinary items are still attractive. Very few days my whole life I’ve not wanted to come to work. There’s something exciting to do every day.

“It was always my ambition in high school to own this store.”

After finishing high school in 1947, Dickens attended watchmaking school in Denver. Upon completion in 1949, he returned home to Iowa City and began working for the jewelry store, which opened in 1945. In 1973, he co-purchased the store for $300,000 under a 15-year contract. A laser welder was added to the store in the late 1990s, a first for any area jeweler.

Dickens said the industry has changed dramatically, particularly in the number of brick and mortar stores.

“There were about five jewelry stores downtown and none in Coralville when I started out,” he said. “Now, we have four full-line jewelry shops downtown. Outlets outside of Iowa City have affected jewelry in Iowa City.”

Although the store is the only area jeweler with an in-house watchmaker, Dickens noted that at one time, at least 10 called Iowa City home, five of whom worked at his store.

“After  [World War II], watches were in such short supply,” he said. “When I came to work, they had so many watchmakers I had to work out of my home.”

City Councilor Terry Dickens, Willa’s son and co-owner, said a number of factors keep the business current. Despite there being two additional full-service jewelers downtown, each is unique in its own right. Being a part of the Retail Jewelers Organization — an 850-store buying group, he said, keeps the store’s prices and inventory competitive.

“We have an extremely large inventory. I’ve been to Belgium a couple of times to buy diamonds,” he said. “Iowa City is a great jewelry town because it’s located right in the middle of Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Omaha.”

Elsabeth Rousch, a second-year graduate student in education at the University of Iowa, began working for the jeweler in 2009. To her, its success goes far beyond its inventory or prominent downtown location.

“I wanted to find a job that has more character,” she said. “[Herteen & Stocker] is kind of something that all of Iowa City can connect to. They’re more like a family than they are an employer.”

Rousch said Willa Dickens’ approachable attitude and drive to learn more make working for him so enjoyable.

“He’s one of the most informed citizens of Iowa City I know,” she said of Willa. “He’s just an open book. People come to the store just to talk to him. I look at Willa as a third grandpa; it’s just an incredible place to work.”

Kelly Jones, a full-time sales associate at the store, is a former Kmart employee who sees a stark contrast between the two retailers.

“It was kind of a night and day difference between working for a corporate company and a family-owned company,” she said. “A lot of it is just so personal when you’re working there. They help you learn a lot. It’s like an ongoing education.”


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