Four generations ago, a 26-year-old jeweler and engraver from Illinois named George Dodson arrived in Spokane Falls, Washington Territory, and opened a jewelry store on Riverside Avenue. Today, Dodson’s Inc. is the oldest family-owned retail business in Spokane. On the eve of the store’s 125th anniversary, we spoke with company president Penn Fix about adapting with the times and the outlook for downtown Spokane.
S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of the family business?
Fix: I remember when I was 7 or 8, going through drawers underneath a display counter and finding jewelry that had been purchased by my great-grandfather. It was so old that they had relegated it to storage. Today that turn-of-the-century filigree stuff is very much in demand.
S-R: Did you get jewelry-related gifts as a child, or did you get normal gifts?
Fix: Jewelry isn’t a normal gift? (laugh)
S-R: Did you always see yourself as destined to work at Dodson’s?
Fix: No. My father sat down with my brother and me when we were 14 and 12 and gave us the pitch. Both of us ignored it and went our own ways. And we’re probably better business people for doing that. I went off and taught history for five years in the Boston area. My brother did restoration carpentry. So we learned different things about the world and brought that back to our business. Quite honestly, if my father had made a big push when I was 19 or 20 years old, I probably wouldn’t have come back. But I never felt pressured by him to come into the business.
S-R: When did you join Dodson’s?
Fix: In the fall of 1979, when I was almost 30.
S-R: You father opened branch stores in area malls. Why did you move away from that business model?
Fix: We closed our five branch stores because of rising expenses that we couldn’t control and not enough sales to match that. I called it de-malling, because the malls are going in a much different direction than we are. For us, service means taking care of something for 100 years.
S-R: What distinguishes Dodson’s from other jewelry stores?
Fix: Everything. The reason we’ve survived relates to how we’re different. The important thing is consistency. We have account books going back to 1892, and the kind of jewelry we’re selling today is the same kind we were selling then, in terms of consistency.
S-R: You’ve demonstrated a strong commitment to downtown Spokane. Why?
Fix: I think the heart and soul of any community is its downtown. We’re fortunate that downtown Spokane has survived while many other urban cores have not.
S-R: What does downtown’s future look like?
Fix: I think downtown’s future is very positive, especially with the way the world is changing. I think there will be a centralizing of resources, so in the long run our downtown is going to do a lot better than other communities that are spread all over the place.
S-R: Do you expect your children to carry on the family business?
Fix: Expect? No. If my dad had expected me to, I might not have been here. I’ve made it clear to our children that they are certainly welcome to join the business. But they do not have to have the burden of being in the business if they choose not to.
S-R: Which holiday generates the most sales?
S-R: What is your most popular item?
Fix: Our real strength is one-of-a-kind items, so I can’t tell you what’s our most popular item. It tends to be items found in our estate jewelry or in some of the fashion designers we carry – Marco Bicego and Georg Jensen.
S-R: Has the soaring price of precious metals scared customers away from gold jewelry?
Fix: It’s more complicated than that. The irony is that we’re in a recession, so you’d think prices would come down. But jewelers are in a difficult situation, because prices have gone up for us. We’ve seen an increased interest in sterling silver because of its lower price point, but people who like yellow gold are still buying it. It’s just costing them more. The thing that has helped is that we buy estate jewelry for less (than retail), and we offer it for less, so we’re still selling gold.
S-R: Can jewelry stores survive this recession?
Fix: We were established before Washington became a state. We survived the Panic of 1893. We survived the Great Depression. We’ll survive this recession, as well.