At Watchmaker’s Daughter, generational change respects past and future

Karen Staub, right, is the third-generation owner of the Watchmaker's Daughter jewelry store in downtown York. Staub's father, Max Reiss, is the former owner of the family business, once known as Reiss Jewelers. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

Max Reiss was able to sit back and watch, for the most part, as his daughter made a few changes to the downtown York jewelry store he had run for nearly 50 years.

Karen Staub kept the street sign out front that said “Reiss Jewelers,” for example, but she decided it was best to rename the business “The Watchmaker’s Daughter.”

“I left her in charge, and I said, ‘You do what you want to do,’” Reiss said inside the North Beaver Street store, which his daughter now owns.

But coming to that point where she had free rein to do what she thought best was a slow transition.

“It was a process,” Staub said, as both she and her father laughed.

Reiss emphasized that Staub learned a lot on her own. “I’m not the best teacher, but I tried!” he added with a chuckle.

Welcome to the world of a small family-owned business, where new generations take over for their predecessors and have to decide what aspects of their businesses to keep, and what to change to stay current.

For Staub, 47, it helped that she started in her early 20s at an entry-level position in her father’s store, today the last remaining jewelry store in downtown York.

A receptionist had left, and her dad said he could use some help. Staub started out waiting on people at the counter and began learning small tasks, like changing watch batteries, how to keep the books and how to use the shop’s various tools.

“I was slowly learning things from him over time, until he felt comfortable that I was able to do things on my own, even when he was not here,” she said.

But, she added, “it took a while until he was open to some new ideas,” like changing merchandise or the store’s interior, or even its name.

Her father’s clientele was getting older and retiring, generally not buying as much jewelry, she said. The biggest changes in her business have been the internet and an increasingly casual dress code, which means less jewelry being worn.

And she knows “you have to market your business to reach your clientele,” said Staub, who among other steps sought out business advice from organizations like SCORE and York College’s business school.

Even as she tweaked her business, which has two full-time and two part-time employees, Staub recognized how the Reiss name is known and respected in the York area, and she wanted to respect that.

“I really think that’s what has helped us survive this far, that people know the name. My dad has built up a good reputation, and a lot of people respect him. You’re not in business for that long and not build relationships,” she said. Staub, who is married to her husband, Anthony, and has a 23-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, was raised in and lives today in Spring Garden Township.

Max Reiss himself was a second-generation business owner. He took over the business from his parents, George and Mary Reiss, after starting at the jewelry store at age 12 and later studying the watchmaking trade at Lancaster’s former Bowman Technical School.

Reiss Jewelers started in 1945 above the Woolworth’s on the first block of York’s West Market Street. The business had a chance to move in 1965, the year Max Reiss took over the business from his parents, to a street-level spot on Beaver Street across from York Central Market.

Amy Spangler

Staub, as the owner now for several years, and her father are proud of how the store has survived through hard times, both in the jewelry industry and in cities like York in past years, to make it to a positive place today.

Along with her on-the-job experience, Staub has learned specialized jewelry skills at various schools around the U.S.

One thing she never plans to change is the store location.

She likes being in downtown York: “It’s a different environment down here … you’re able to build a relationship with other shop owners, and over time, you sort of become like a family. And you can make your own hours and build relationships one-on-one with people.

“I don’t know if you would get that same feeling in a mall atmosphere. If we didn’t survive here, I don’t think we’d consider relocating,” she said. She declined to share company revenue, but emphasized that her business is on “a slow, gradual upward turn, so hopefully we can keep that trend going.”

The Watchmaker’s Daughter is a key part of the downtown York shopping scene, active in downtown events, said Meagan Feeser, chief marketing and development officer for York’s Downtown Inc.

And Staub is one of the Beaver Street boutique owners “who really take new retailers under their wing and offer advice,” Feeser said.

Staub also collaborates with other shop owners and provides customers with personalized service, even creating custom pieces from scratch or repurposing people’s family heirlooms or old jewels, Feeser added.

David O'Connor
Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com.

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