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With no one left to run the shop, a St. Louis clockmaster calls it quits

Austin Huguelet, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Business News

BRENTWOOD, Missouri — The Clockmaster here is running out of time.

After more than three decades solving the puzzles of century-old clocks and five-figure watches, Robert Good is ready to retire, and there's no one ready to take over his store. So Good is telling customers that his shop is closing at the end of July.

"I don't mean to be morbid," said Good, 66, "but I want to leave here without a toe tag."

He'll be missed. There are other clock shops in the region, but not nearly as many as there used to be. And reinforcements are in short supply: His son doesn't want to stay in Missouri. No one, so far, wants to buy the store. Even the local horology school — where students learn the art and science of clock-making — is letting him down. Enrollment at the Quincy, Illinois, institution, where Good himself learned, is less than a tenth of what it was 50 years ago.

But there's still business to be had: Plenty of people rely on him to keep their old clocks ticking. "We have people tear up at the counter because they got to hear the clock that grandma heard," Good said.

Garry Meyer came by on Wednesday to pick up a camelback mantel clock, with the distinctive hump of its namesake, and had a similar story. "My wife and I have had it since we got married 50 years ago," he said, "and we can't part with it."

When Inez Barrett-Otey, 74, of Webster Groves, Missouri, came in Wednesday and learned she wouldn't be able to get her two clocks serviced here anymore, the news almost knocked her over. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she said.

In the early 1980s, Good was a newly minted teacher looking for something to do on summer break when he stumbled upon some clock repair classes at Gem City College, in Quincy. He'd enjoyed tinkering with things as a kid — the washer, the bikes, the lawnmower — and figured it'd be fun.

It was. Then he started getting grades back on projects: It could be a career, too.

Working with aspirin nearby

Within a few years, he set up shop in a tiny space in downtown St. Louis a block from the Arch and began building a clientele. Every morning, he would bask in the smell of the food cooking at Tony's, the fine-dining institution, as he toiled. By early 1989, he'd decided he was ready for something bigger, opened the Brentwood location, and started hiring help.

He was not ready. "My first year was horrible," he said. "I tripled my expenses and my clientele was the same. I wanted to quit." But with a little leeway from his landlord and whole lot of hustle, he slowly began to eke out a future.

"I was ignorant to failure," he said. "I just hung in there because this is what I was good at."

A lot of jobs just needed a new set of batteries, but on any given day, someone could come through the door with a small fortune for him to work on. Good still remembers a guy who came in with his and hers Swiss-made watches. Declared value? $35,000, each. "I had to work to keep a straight face," Good recalled. "We jumped on those right away, we didn't want 'em lying around."

But he got more comfortable with time. Over the years, he got his hands on 200-year-old grandfather clocks with images of wooden warships and constellations, elaborate cuckoo clocks depicting idyllic scenes from German villages, and bigger projects, like the clock at St. Louis' Union Station.

 

He didn't much care for the tower clocks — too big, too hot, too much pigeon poop. But he took a special liking to Atmos clocks, a special line of Swiss timekeepers that can wind themselves with the energy from temperature changes in a room. Atmos lovers would send him theirs from all over the country to be worked on.

Some jobs demanded months or even a year of puzzling over problems, trying different solutions and then testing them to see if they would stick. Some days he wouldn't even want to look at a clock confounding him. But then he'd be driving or doing something else, inspiration would strike, and the work would almost become soothing. "I had a bottle of aspirin nearby, though," he said.

Raising chickens

He needed it for the business, too. A retail operation he set up to supplement the repair revenue collapsed with the onset of online shopping. Finding help got harder as fewer people took an interest in the trade. And spare parts got scarce as old clock companies went out of business and the ones left stopped selling him parts, opting, instead, to fix their clocks themselves.

But he managed to source some parts through others with accounts at the big companies, and the rest he bought from China or made in-house. He enlisted his son, Sam, to join the workshop out of high school in 2013. And while his retail business never really recovered, someone was always bringing in something to be fixed. That proved especially true during the pandemic as people spent more time at home with broken clocks. Pretty soon, 100 of them were coming through each month.

"It was recession proof," Good said. "There was stuff I wouldn't pull out of a dumpster, but people would pay for it."

They might be able to visit a Clockmaster again somewhere after July 31. Good says he's still talking to someone who owns some other shops in the area about buying the business.

But he's done, he says.

He'll bring home one of the Atmos clocks. The rest of the shop will have to go. His wife has a honey-do list a mile long, and they recently purchased a small farm near Warsaw, Missouri, on Truman Lake. "We're going to be raising chickens," Good said.

All that's left now is to give everyone back their clocks, lock the doors and go home.

Still, it's not clear home will be an escape.

The other day, a roofer came over and told him about all the clocks he needed to get fixed. And Good was drawn in, again.

Plus, he has ideas of his own. What about a cuckoo clock with an American twist: a locomotive chugging around a tiny track in place of the bird, railroad spike weights instead of pinecones?

"I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna about this job," he said. "But it's pretty cool."

©2022 STLtoday.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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