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End of an era for Duluth’s oldest jewelry store

Customers shop for jewelry and other items Wednesday at Bagley & Co. in downtown Duluth. The store is closing after 131 years of operation. At right, owner Rick Heimbach helps a customer. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 8
Bagley & Co. owner Rick Heimbach helps Steve Olean (right) of Carlton shop for a ring with his fiancee, Refuigo Valencia, on Wednesday.(Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)2 / 8
Mei Chan of Duluth (left) and her sister try on rings before making a purchase during the going-out-of-business sale at Bagley & Co. Wednesday morning. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)3 / 8
Jeweler Austin Yadon (right) assists a throng of customers at Bagley & Co.’s official kickoff last week of its going-out-of-business sale. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)4 / 8
Goldsmith John McGraw examines a mangled gold ring brought in to Bagley & Co. by a customer for repair. He works at a jeweler’s bench that dates back to the store’s beginnings in the late 1800s. McGraw has worked for Bagley’s for 44 years and is now semi-retired, working once a week. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)5 / 8
This is how Bagley’s jewelers looked in 1904 after an extensive remodel. Today, the store still features the built-in mahogany wall display cases and long center display table that it did then. (Photo courtesy of Bagley & Co.)6 / 8
Duluth’s oldest jewelry store, at 315 W. Superior St., is closing after 131 years. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)7 / 8
Portraits of the four generations of family ownership hang on a wall at the Bagley & Co. store. From left: Cassius Bagley, Charlene Bagley Heimbach, Richard Heimbach and Rick Heimbach. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)8 / 8

It’s not easy to close a 131-year-old business that’s been in one’s family for four generations.

Not when it’s the oldest jewelry store in Duluth that’s been in the same downtown storefront since 1885.

Not when it has been called the “Tiffany’s of Duluth,” a destination store where many have gotten fine jewelry, dishes and gifts that have become family heirlooms.

But for longtime owner Rick Heimbach, the decision to close Bagley & Co. at 315 W. Superior St. has been building for several years.

A convergence of factors — from a lack of a successor to the upcoming Superior Street reconstruction — have led him to close now even though the store had its best year in a decade last year.

“I feel letting go and accepting is the best thing for the store and for all of us,” said Heimbach, who is 64 and plans to retire.

With consumer tastes leaning to more-casual, less-expensive items today, Heimbach is liquidating the inventory in better hopes of selling the business for $25,000 to $50,000 as a turnkey operation.

“They’re buying the location and the history,” he explained. “They put their own money into their own inventory. It gives someone the opportunity to continue under the same name or a different name.”

Heimbach sat down with the News Tribune on Tuesday, the day before the going-out-of-business sale filled the store with customers. Many were longtime patrons and friends.

“We’re sad. We will really, really miss this store,” said DeeDee Widdes of Duluth. “I came to Duluth as a bride in 1968. I have been coming here since then. It will be missed. It fills a niche in the community. They have things that no one else has.”

David Winek of Superior also had a history with the store.

“My mother brought me here when I was a young lad,” he said. “She had some very nice things.”

When he married his wife, Kay, he got her a nice string of pearls at Bagley’s. That was 36 years ago.

“Whenever we come to Duluth, we come here,” he said.

Family-owned since 1890

The store opened in 1885 as F.D. Day & Co. Five years later, Cassius Bagley — Heimbach’s great-grandfather — became the owner and changed the name. His daughter, Charlene Bagley Heimbach, eventually took over, followed after World War II by her son, Richard Heimbach. In 1979, his son, Rick, took over the business.

The store’s stately elegance and fine, high-quality jewelry, china and gifts drew the city’s early millionaires. With the Great Depression, the store saw tough times. It adjusted by carrying less-expensive merchandise. Sterling silver serving pieces gave way to more silver-plated ones. China dishes became less fancy, crystal glass less ornate.

But through the years, Bagley’s continued to carry sterling silver, fine china and crystal for customers who wanted it.

“My married life started here, almost 50 years ago,” said Angelica Fryberger of Duluth. “I got all my dishes here. This is where I learned about the finer things in life. If you were going to get something nice for someone, this is where you came.”

Now, after 37 years running Bagley’s, Rick Heimbach doesn’t have a successor, even though his 26-year-old daughter works for a fine jewelry store in St. Cloud.

“I looked at her going into the business, but she loves St. Cloud, likes her job, has a nice relationship going and wants to stay there,” he said. “And she’s not sure she wants to own a business.”

Then there’s the changing tastes of the consumer and competition from the internet.

“People are spending less money on fine jewelry and fine giftware,” Heimbach said. “People aren’t entertaining the way they used to.”

Street project looms

But the biggest reason for closing the business now is the upcoming reconstruction of Superior Street, starting in 2017 and taking three years. He acknowledges it’s needed with 100-year-old underground utilities needing replacement. But he expects his store sales would plummet at least 30 percent to 50 percent during the streetwork. While it will be done in three-block sections, he said a Superior Street that’s not fully navigable for three years will hurt business.

“At my age, do I have the ability and energy to survive this construction period for three-plus years?” Heimbach said. “I don’t. I don’t feel I have the energy and ability to carry this out and come out of it in five years.”

“We’d be running a going-out-of-business sale in the middle of it for entirely different reasons,” he continued. “I feel this is forcing my hand.”

A few doors down, Security Jewelers, another longtime jewelry store is also in its fourth generation of family ownership which began in 1924. Security Jewelers also sells over the internet, while Bagley’s does not.

“We’ve been very civil competitors for many, many years,” co-owner Jay Seiler said. “And we’re very sad to see them go. We’re two of the oldest jewelry stores in Duluth, if not the state.”

He, too, has concerns about the upcoming street reconstruction, but he said their block will be disrupted for only eight to 10 months.

“We all lived through it before,” he said referring to the 1980s streetscape project. “We did the same thing 35 years ago. We have the skywalk entrance. There’s more ways to get there.”

Downtown still had numerous retailers then, including at least one department store, that drew people downtown in the 1980s.

“The previous reconstruction didn’t hurt that much,” Heimbach said. “People didn’t want to lose their downtown to the mall.”

Heimbach owns the buildings that house Bagley & Co. as well as the storefronts on each side that currently have tenants. Although the buildings are not listed on the market, he aims to sell them as one property for $400,000 since their utilities are connected.

“I can’t sell the building until I know what’s happening with the business,” he said.

Unless someone buys the business in the next couple of months, he expects Bagley & Co. to close by June.

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