Thorpe & Co. Jewellers closing

Rusty Clark helps long-time customers Carla and Peter MacFarlane look at watches Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, at Thorpe & Co. Jewellers in Sioux City, Iowa. Clark and his wife, Karen, have announced their retirement and the closure of the store which has been in Clark’s family for 120 years.

SIOUX CITY — Much as he loves Thorpe & Co. Jewellers, Rusty Clark wanted to enjoy retirement and spend quality time with his grandkids and his wife Karen, who runs the store with him.

Family lore has it that Clark’s great-grandfather, George Thorpe, kept working until he died in July 1950 at age 87. 

Rusty Clark, 67, who has been in the store longer than any of his forefathers had been, didn’t want that fate for himself.

“That’s the thing that I don’t want to do. I don’t want to go from the store to the mortuary,” he said.

And although the downtown jewelry store historically has been passed down from one generation of the Thorpe-Clark family to the next, Clark’s children were not interested in taking over the business. 

Clark, the fourth generation of the family to run the store at 501 Fourth St., said that closing Sioux City’s oldest retailer was “the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life.” He stressed that external factors — i.e., COVID-19 — had nothing to do with the decision to close, plans for which had been laid as early as two years ago and finalized at the end of last year. 

“It was in 2019, when we committed to it and knew it was going to happen,” said Clark. 

Clark had figured he would’ve made peace with the decision by now. So far that has not been the case. 

“When you realize the ramifications of that decision, and the respect that I have for my customers and for my employees, it was an extremely, extremely difficult decision,” he said. “And I thought once I revealed it to everybody, it would be easier. It’s even harder. The emotional roller-coaster, the downs are far surpassing the ups right now.” 

Thorpe’s going-out-of-business sales began last week and will continue until the merchandise runs out, likely through the Christmas season. 

Born in Aylesbury, England in 1863, George Thorpe founded the Thorpe & Hoberg jewelers with Oscar J. Hoberg in 1900. After spending time as a jewelers’ apprentice in London, Thorpe came to the U.S. in 1890, according to his obituary, and to Sioux City thereafter. For several years he worked at a downtown Sioux City jewelry shop run by Will H. Beck before he went into business for himself. 

The elder Thorpe was an enterprising man who didn’t confine his work to the shop. 

Thorpe & Co. Jewellers closing

The exterior of Thorpe & Co. Jewellers, including the store’s iconic clock, is shown Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, in downtown Sioux City, Iowa. Owners Rusty and Karen Clark have announced their retirement and the closure of the store which has been in Clark’s family for 120 years.

“If a train arrived in town at midnight, George Thorpe would be there selling pocket watches to the people that got off the train,” Clark said. 

The store’s earliest contemporaries have been gone so long their names are almost obscured to history. At the time, the earliest of Sioux City’s major retailers — Davidson Brothers, Pelletier Co., and T.S. Martin & Co. — were still in business.

Thorpe and Hoberg’s partnership appeared to have dissolved circa 1906 and the store became Thorpe & Co.; Oscar Hoberg’s name was later on a separate jewelry shop on Pierce Street. 

George Thorpe’s daughter, Mae Louis Thorpe, married Wilson Clark in 1922, and Wilson Clark ran the store for decades. In 1923 they had a son, George Thorpe “Bud” Clark, who was Rusty Clark’s father. Bud Clark joined the business in 1947. 

Wilson E. “Rusty” Clark joined the business in 1976, shortly after graduating from the University of Kansas and a stint with another jeweler in Lawrence, Kansas. He married the former Karen Bloom in April 1977. Like her husband, Karen has worked at Thorpe for decades. 

Early on in his career at the store, Clark and his father were faced with a major decision, one which confronted all of Sioux City’s downtown retailers at the time — whether or not to move to the Southern Hills Mall, which opened to great fanfare in 1980. Among its contemporaries, Thorpe was nearly alone in the decision to stay put. (They did, however, run a “backup” satellite store on Hamilton Boulevard between 1980 and 1990, in case the downtown location was crushed by the mall traffic.) 

That decision not to leave the downtown was made in part because the rent on a space in the mall would have resulted in higher prices, Clark said. Tradition was also a factor — Thorpe has always been in the 500 block of Fourth Street. 

“We made the decision back in the early ’80s not to go to the mall, because I didn’t want to put that price increase into my product,” he said. “It wasn’t right for my customers.” 

“We’re thrilled that we stayed downtown,” he added. (All that being said, Clark also said he doesn’t mean to knock shopping malls.) 

George Thorpe Clark, exasperated by a major renovation to the store that rearranged everything, retired in about 1986 or 1987. He died in April 2015 at age 91. 

“Dad was 65 years old, approximately, and he couldn’t find anything. Everything was different. He couldn’t find the ring sizers, and he couldn’t find a pen, and where are the job envelopes, and he just threw his hands up in the air and said, ‘That’s it, I’m done! You do this, I’m not going to do this anymore!'” Rusty Clark recalled. “So, that’s when my father stepped away from it.” 

Clark spoke at length about the frequent shifts in jewelry styles over the years — white gold was in, then it was very much out, then the ever-popular yellow gold, and now rose gold, a pinkish alloy of gold and copper in varying proportions, depending on the karat. Diamonds have always been a top-seller. 

Thorpe & Co. Jewellers closing

Customers shop a going out of business sale Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, at Thorpe & Co. Jewellers in Sioux City, Iowa. Owners Rusty and Karen Clark have announced their retirement and the closure of the store which has been in Clark’s family for 120 years.

Decades ago, most rings were sold ready-made as they were under the counter. Today everybody wants their ring customized. 

“People like this part of this ring, and this part of this ring, and they want to put a different size stone in it than what was already set in it, so it became much more personalized to the person,” Clark said. 

As is the case with all of retail, the internet changed the jewelry business, though Clark said that traditional brick-and-mortar jewelry shops still have a place because people like to see and touch these things for themselves. He does not have a high opinion of low-cost jewelry purchased online. 

“The internet can make something look really, really good, and when you actually receive it, it’s not really, really good. It’s lightweight, it’s cheap, so pretty much I find you get what you pay for,” Thorpe said. “And if it’s cheap, it’s cheap in more ways than just the price.” 

Even in this challenging retail environment, Clark said the store is doing a swift business. That doesn’t make the decision to close much easier — Clark called Thorpe’s success “a double-edged sword that is chewing me apart at times” — but it is nonetheless a point of pride. 

“The nice thing for me right now is, our business is going so well, and that’s another thing that makes it so difficult for me. Our business is doing so well, we have so many loyal customers that depend upon us, and we’re going strong,” he said. “So, I’m happy and sad to say, we’re going out on top.” 

The distinctive multi-faced clock that stands in front of the entry of Thorpe and Company, which Clark said his great-grandfather bought in England and installed in 1903, will still be around, though Clark said he hasn’t yet figured out where or in what capacity. 

“It will remain here in Sioux City somewhere, and exactly how, I haven’t discussed that with anybody yet, but we’ll see what happens with that,” he said. “That’s a landmark in Sioux City, and it belongs to Sioux City as far as I’m concerned.” 

Photos: Lower Fourth Street through the 20th century

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