When George R. Dodson opened a jewelry store on Riverside Avenue in 1887, Spokane was remote and scarcely populated. But soon came statehood, and customers, and competition.
“When my great grandfather came to Spokane there were 7,500 people, and by 1910 there were over 120,000. And in that time period, in Spokane in the core area, there were probably 50 jewelers,” said John Penn Fix III, who now holds the reins of his great grandfather’s business, Dodson’s Jewelers at 516 W. Riverside.
Fix, who runs Dodson’s with his wife, Debra Schultz, regards the business as the oldest in town. At 130 years old, it has survived countless economic ups and downs, and a slow evolution of the downtown core – not to mention the Great Fire of 1889, which destroyed Dodson’s second location just across the street.
There aren’t so many jewelers nowadays, as much of the industry has moved online. But Dodson’s remains profitable, and the owners have plenty of explanations for its success.
First and foremost, Schultz said, “Dodson’s is the brand.” The business is defined by its charm and traditions, she said, not by the products it sells. It’s a “destination store,” she said.
“If you go online to many jewelry stores nowadays, they list all the brands they sell, and we’ve chosen to not go that direction,” Schultz said. “We have long-standing relationships with some very, very fine designers and manufacturers, and we buy their product and we sell it as Dodson’s jewelry. We don’t put a name on it.”
But Fix said he couldn’t understate the importance of listening to customers, adjusting to modern sensibilities and investing in new technology. Including the owners, Dodson’s has about 10 part- and full-time employees.
“The reason why we remain in business is we have very loyal customers – but we don’t take them for granted,” Fix said. “We don’t sit back and just wait for people to come in.”
Schultz added, “Loyalty is a movable target.”
For a handful of families, Dodson’s remains a tradition, a place for multiple generations of brides- and husbands-to-be, she said. But others aren’t so familiar with the business, and only stop by to have rings fitted or links taken out of watch bands they purchased online.
“Everybody is shopping online,” Schultz said. “Whether they buy online, or not, is another question.”
About half of the engagement rings that Dodson’s sells are custom-made, which is possible in large part because Fix and Schultz invested in technology that allows rings to be designed on a computer, then cast in sand molds in the building.
In the 1990s, Fix and his brother closed the five branch stores their father, John Penn Fix Jr., had established in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. The goal, Fix said, was to bring Dodson’s back to its roots. Those strip mall locations weren’t working out.
“We have held dearly to the significance of a downtown location,” he said. “The heart of any community is its downtown.”
Another change came several years ago, after the owners realized the market had shrunk for fine china and other housewares.
“When young couples get married they register at maybe Pottery Barn, or they register at Target,” Schultz said. “They’re not registering for a 12-piece silver flatware set.”
So the couple removed products from the shelves, and shelves from the walls, and transformed the store into a gallery featuring the work of local artists.
“Selling art was a big reset,” Shultz said. “We love art, and there are a lot of artists in Spokane who are totally underrepresented. It has totally refreshed our business. The number of new customers who have come in as a result of the art is significant.”
There still are challenges, like a lack of parking, Schultz said.
“People like to be able to drive right up in front of the store and park their car,” she said.
Fix noted that most nearby retail stores are now along Main Avenue or in River Park Square. Dodson’s always has been on Riverside, but only at its current location since 1987.
“Riverside Avenue used to be the center of commerce in downtown Spokane. It certainly isn’t anymore,” he said. “But we have stayed on Riverside, and we’ve done well. We no longer rely on the traffic coming by us.”
Schultz said “a lot of people don’t like coming downtown because of what is perceived as a tough environment,” but she believes that perception is beginning to change as the population grows, the local economy heats up again and private development continues to transform the downtown core.
“A lot of young people are choosing to come to Spokane,” she said, noting she’s hopeful an influx of jobs will follow. “They like the environment. The schools are good. You can still buy a house. It’s a nice place to live.”
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