Kim Contos has owned and operated a retail jewelry store in downtown Spokane since 1973, first as Lord of Rings and later as Evan Michaels & Son Credit Jewelers. Contos graduated from North Central High School in 1967, and skipping the chance to play junior college football, enlisted in the Marine Corps.
He served for nearly two years in Vietnam, then returned to Spokane in 1969 and became an “anti-establishment” hippie.
But he also had an aptitude for business, owing to the significant influence of his parents, Carmela and Aleck Contos. “I owe them everything,” he said.
Contos has been in the Chase Bank skywalk for the past 26 years.
Now 65, he plans to stay in business through the holidays, then retire and move to Coronado Island near San Diego.
S-R: How did you end up selling jewelry?
Contos: I fell into it by chance. After I got out of the Marines, I wasn’t doing much. I was working on the railroad as a brakeman for $3.20 per hour.
Around 1973 an old Marine friend of mine was a licensed buyer of turquoise on a New Mexico reservation. He called me and asked me if I would sell some Indian turquoise, which was unbelievably popular then. It overshadowed fine jewelry. Well, he brought up $30,000 worth of retail turquoise and we opened a little store.
S-R: Where was that store?
Contos: It was in half of what’s now Boo Radley’s (at Howard Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard). I called it Lord of Rings. Not Lord of the Rings. Just Lord of Rings.
S-R: How long did you focus on selling turquoise jewelry?
Contos: Until about 1979. That was when the big warehouses got into the turquoise market. They began making $2 to $10 turquoise rings. That wiped it out.
S-R: Did you make money selling turquoise?
Contos: Well, one high point was being a middle man selling $20,000 of Indian turquoise to Nordstrom. I got a profit of $4,000 on that sale.
S-R: Did you sell jewelry during the World’s Fair (of 1974)?
Contos: Since the store was close to (Riverfront) park, I got a booth inside the Mexicana plaza during the fair. I went there every day and had a guy work at the store.
A guy from Mexico, who was running the Mexican plaza at the fair, comes to me and says he wanted to buy all my turquoise jewelry.
He wanted it all, and the showcases with them. I came up with a price and he wrote me a check for $16,000. That was a lot of money back then.
S-R: When did you change the store name?
Contos: It was about 1984. By that point I had studied the business and learned a lot about buying precious gems. The “Lord of” thing was kind of passé. A friend of mine, David Pitts, said he wanted to help and become a business partner.
I changed the name to Evan Michaels & Son. My middle name is Evan. David’s middle name is Michaels. I added the “and Son” because it sounded like a good name.
David never became a partner and ended up never putting any money into the business, but I’ve kept the name. I also moved the store by then, to the street level of Riverside and Wall. I stayed there eight years.
S-R: Since you’re about to retire, did you try to sell Evan Michaels & Son to someone?
Contos: Yes, but it’s very hard to sell. I asked a national broker to put it on the market. He told me there were only two jewelry stores sold all of 2013. Unless you’re doing $10 million a year, you won’t find a buyer.
S-R: What were you asking?
Contos: I wanted $50,000 for the 41 years of (experience) and $110,000 for my stock. I got no offers.
S-R: Why the lack of interest?
Contos: I needed to find someone who was very knowledgeable about jewelry, and who had money (for upgrading inventory). It would have to be a goldsmith, or certified appraiser (of gems). If you don’t have that (combination) it’s impossible to make this successful.
S-R: What about your family? Was anyone interested in the store?
Contos: I have two sons but neither wanted to take over here. One is a landscape architect in town with his own successful business. The other lives in San Diego and is a plumber. He has no plans to come back.
S-R: So, going back to 1973, how did you keep the business going this long, primarily on your own with no partners?
Contos: The two secrets are keeping a low overhead and knowing how to buy. That’s how I made it.
It costs me only $1,000 per month to be here, compared to my competitors paying a lot more. All that overhead leads to retail pricing. I also don’t have anyone work for me.
I also earned a No. 1 credit rating with the Jewelers Board of Trade. Once I got that, I could get any (item) sent to me overnight on consignment. I don’t have to buy that item.
S-R: How does that matter?
Contos: If a customer wants to see a two-carat stone of excellent quality, the supplier will send it to me, and I will pay the same price, give or take 5 percent, that my competitors will pay. I can present it to the customer, who can buy it or not. And I can return it if not bought.
Because I can be flexible on price because of low overhead, I can sell it for far lower than my competitors will.
S-R: What items do you try to keep in the store to show customers? Do you change inventory?
Contos: It’s all about inventory. In this business you have to show the consumer what we call “jeweler’s prestige.” You can’t have just 20 pieces. You have to have 500 pieces, even if they’re not selling. You need to show the consumer you’re a quality seller.
S-R: So who are your main customers?
Contos: It’s mostly men buying for women. Diamonds, pendants, earrings and engagement-wedding sets. It’s folks getting married. The fourth quarter accounts for at least 60 percent of my total sales.
S-R: Speaking of rings, how often have you been married?
Contos: I married when I was about 20 or 21 … I was married for one year. She was a full-blooded Italian girl. We had one son, Christian.
I had a second serious relationship for many years but never married her. Her name was Sandi. A beautiful woman, who I called “Big D.” We had one son, Taylor.
S-R: What was your best business year?
Contos: In 2011 I sold a seven-carat, princess-cut tennis bracelet with diamonds and platinum to a guy from the Tri-Cities. I got it sent to me by a supplier and he came up the next day and paid $12,000 retail for it.
And that year a local farm machinery retailer spent $35,000 on a three-stone diamond ring of superb quality. That was my best year.
S-R: What was your worst day?
Contos: It was also just before Christmas about five years ago. An elderly woman came in and wanted to look at three one-carat diamonds. It was almost closing time. I laid them out on the counter and then the phone rang.
When I came back after answering the phone, she said thanks and left. I realized she had replaced them (with fakes). She was a nice lady, in her 60s. I never saw her again. I had to file an insurance claim.
S-R: What will you miss when you leave?
Contos: The people. I love people and I’ve met so many different kinds of people here. I wish them all good health and prosperity. I will miss my home dearly. But it’s time.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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