Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Menagerie of People: Linda Schwarz & Forget-Me-Nots

Someone phones the store asking for a piece of “blue jewelry” for a friend who’s getting married. A blue heart's kinda what she has in mind, the caller says. Well, she doesn’t have any blue heart jewelry, owner Linda Schwarz replies, but she does have a forget-me-nots pin and a few other pieces that have touches of blue. The woman says she’ll be in later to look at them. Another woman comes in and talks about her impending divorce. And still a third woman shows up with extra canned food for the store cats, Jimmy and Alex, and stays to visit.

 It’s a typical afternoon at Forget-Me-Nots, the shop that Schwarz opened in Southwick, Massachusetts back in 2000. People – and cats – wander in and keep coming back. Or, in the case of the cats, end up staying until she either finds good homes for them or adopts them herself. (Schwarz is passionate about animals and about cats in particular: she collects money for the Southwick Animal Shelter and donates the proceeds from costume-jewelry sales to other homeless cat projects in the area.) She has a talent for friendship, and the little jewelry store has become a sort of gathering place for what she calls “a menagerie of people.”

Not that it started out as a jewelry store, mind you. No, in the beginning, Forget-Me-Nots’ main focus was antiques. “Alex, my husband, and Jennifer, my friend, pushed me to open it because they knew I’d always wanted an antiques shop,” Schwarz explains. Back then, they had a lot of late 19th- and early 20th-century furniture – bureaus, bonnet cupboards, tables, and china cabinets – and just “a little tray of rings underneath the counter.” It was great, she adds, “because there was a real boom at that time in the antiques business.”

Jennifer left the store after about a year. Then 9-11 happened, and rhinestone flag pins were practically the only thing the Schwarzes could sell. “The whole romantic idea of the older furniture and the Victorian atmosphere and all that just seemed to dissolve. That was the start of disillusionment.”

 But the jewelry kept the store going. There’d been a steadily growing interest in it ever since her husband had told her to put the rings out where everybody could see them. Schwarz had worked in several jewelry stores over the years; and she had an eye for color and design. “I never took the gemological exam because I really didn’t have any interest in it,” she admits. “But if you like something and you enjoy it, you can pass on that enjoyment, that feeling for the piece to someone else.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t a certain science to the jewelry business: “You measure diamonds, you weigh them; you measure gold, you weigh it. It’s very precise, how you buy it and how you sell it. But then the beauty of the piece takes over.” Her voice takes a reflective turn. “You have to know a lot. You have to learn by trial and error.”

Over time, “that circular tray of rings” expanded to five good-sized showcases of jewelry – Victorian cameos, costume, gemstone pieces from India, rose-gold rings from the 1940s, Czech glass pendants, aurora borealis beads, crystals, Zhostovo brooches and enamel bracelets and rings from Russia, and gold and silver charms.  But it was the antique jewelry that really drew customers. “People liked my jewelry because it was unique,” Schwarz says simply. “It was one-of-a-kind, had history, had feeling. Pre-owned, pre-loved. You couldn’t find the pieces you bought here anywhere else.”

Very seldom does the jewelry date back further than the mid-1800s. Once, however, a woman brought her a gold band with a cluster of diamonds that her great-aunt had smuggled out of Hungary. “It was closed-back, which meant late 1700s,” the jeweler explains. “The diamonds were very jagged – a primitive cut. No bottom facets – flat on the sides. It was Georgian[, which] is like 1780 to 1830.”

 A lot of the other pieces that have come her way have stories attached to them…though they’re not as exotic as the Hungarian ring’s. Schwarz tells me the story of a bracelet that “had bad vibes. One man had it custom-made for his girlfriend. They had been going out for years. It [the bracelet] had her initial or some significant charm on it. They ended up breaking up, and he returned it to the store. The next guy who bought it, the same thing happened. The piece was finally melted down.” Another customer brought in a small box filled with Scottish jewelry that that she wanted to sell: her abusive ex-husband had given it all to her years before, and this was her way of letting go of him and the past.

 So, yeah, there’s always a story. Which makes sense when you stop to consider the motley cast of characters that has passed through her shop over the years. “I have so many customers, they might not think they’re strange--!” She breaks off with a laugh, then begins mulling it over aloud. “They’re not strange, it’s just that they come from different backgrounds. They’re colorful. That’s the word, maybe. They’re full of color.” Chad, one of her male customers, was “just like a little spiritual counselor.” And Don, an older retired man, came to Forget-Me-Nots “as a customer and stayed as a friend. It was a place for him to hang out, and he was a help to me. He just sat quietly in the chair, and he listened, and he commented after people left.” He also fixed furniture and lamps for her and did various other odd jobs around the store.

Don died over the summer. But the navy-blue “Security” sweatshirt that Schwarz gave him as a joke last Christmas still hangs over the back of his favorite Windsor chair.

So many presences seem to linger in the store, the chief one being her husband’s – and not just because there’s a huge golden Norwegian Forest cat by the same name posing amid the collectibles in the front window or rolling on the carpet. Alex Schwarz died in September 2004, and she speaks of him often and with a tried-and-true affection. “He loved this shop,” she says, “and he loved doing the behind-the-scenes stuff. He was like Inspector Clouseau. He wouldn’t say anything because he was very conscious of his Russian accent. He was very articulate in English, very well-spoken, but his accent was very heavy, and he was very self-conscious about it.”

 After Alex’s death, Schwarz seriously considered not re-opening the store. She even had one of her sons call customers to pick up all their layaways. But Alex had put so much of himself in the business, she realized that she “couldn’t just shut it down. That would dishonor his memory, and he loved it [the store].”

And then – it was the strangest thing – widows began flocking into the store with their stories. It was comforting to Schwarz…almost like having a support group come to her. “One after the other seemed to be telling me their stories. One woman was a widow three times.” She couldn’t help feeling “that God had sent these people to say, ‘You’re not the only one who has to go through this, and you’ll pull through – pull through with the help of other people.’”

 So, you see, for Schwarz, making sales isn't what it's all about.  She genuinely enjoys getting to know the people on the other side of the counter. “As you make the sale, there’s also someone there listening to what you have to say,” she reflects. “It seems to be a big part of my business, anyway. Some people do come in and just buy and leave but very few. They all have a story and need a sympathetic ear.”


Pat Garcia said...

Hi T.J.
I enjoyed reading this very touching story. Life keeps going and the purpose for our being remains as long as we are breathing. This is so evident in Linda Schwarz's life. I'm so glad that she didn't close her store when her husband died or give up after 9/11. That store has touched lives and brought sunshine to mourning hearts.


T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Patricia. I agree with you 100% -- Linda and her shop have given so much to so many people. This is a "Sketch People" piece I'm particularly fond of, and if I ever bring out another SKETCH PEOPLE book, "A Menagerie of People" will definitely be in it!