112 and counting for Washington’s oldest retailer

Published 1:45 am Friday, October 16, 2020

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At least three Beaufort County businesses have achieved centenarian status. The Daily News profiled Alligood’s Garage (107) on Wednesday. Today, Stewart’s Jewelry Store, checking in at 112 years young, is the feature story.

Raymond Lee (R.L.) Stewart was an astute businessman, just a little undercapitalized. He needed seed money before he could start his jewelry store in downtown Washington, but didn’t want to bother his father, who ran a local machine shop and served as the city’s mayor. He took the next best option, which was his father-in-law, Abner Thomas. Stewart opened his name-sake store in 1908 on North Market Street, while eyeing vacant property across the east side of the street.

It took Stewart and Thomas two years to build their new location, a three-story structure that connected to the adjoining building. Stewart kept one side of the bottom floor for his store while renting out the other side. The second floor was the shop’s mezzanine level, and he fashioned two offices on the third level, one for a dentist and the other for a lawyer. There was also a small rental apartment on the top floor, all to keep revenue streams flowing if business went south.

One hundred and 12 years later, Stewart’s Jewelry Store is still operating at 121 N. Market St., making Stewart’s Washington’s oldest retailer. R.L. Stewart had a heart attack in the late 1940s and summoned his son Thomas home from Houston, Texas, to help him run things.

Thomas Stewart was doing fine on his own, having graduated from N.C. State University with a chemical engineering degree and a job with Shell Oil Company, where his team invested the No Pest Strip to keep mosquitoes and other insects away from outdoor gatherings. However, he knew his dad needed him, and he came home.

“Daddy liked to say he was the only chemical engineer in the country who was in the jewelry business,” his daughter, Betty Stewart, said. “The two of them worked together for a couple of years before granddaddy died right after I was born.”

Thomas Stewart found time for public service while serving the public in his store. He spent 16 years as a councilman, then mayor and 33 years as a volunteer fireman. Stewart Parkway, which runs along the downtown waterfront, bears his name.

Betty Stewart grew up around the store and remembers playing with odds and ends from a jewelry box her dad kept in the back.

“I used to spread them out all over the floor and loved how everything sparkled and shined,” she said. “I made up all kinds of games with them and even sold them to myself. I was my own best customer.”

HISTORICAL RECORD: R.L. Stewart and his father-in-law, Abner Thomas, built the current location in 1910. The current building has undergone two renovations since.

One scenario that she never played out was running the store, but history repeated itself.

“I was 30 years old and had just quit my job as the registrar at Peace College (now William Peace University) in Raleigh when my dad called,” Stewart, now 67, said. “I was staying home with my 2-year-old daughter, and his timing was perfect. He asked me to come home to help him, so I did.”

Father and daughter, along with mother Virgil on weekends, worked together as Thomas Stewart phased himself out, then retired. He died 2001 at age 80.

“My dad taught me the three C’s of the diamond business — cut, clarity and color — and we went from there,” she said. “He trained me, and I taught myself by earning my certification through the Gemological Institute of America. He also taught me that earning our customers’ trust is what keeps the business open. I’m very proud of our staff, (including current store manager Aaron Adams) who have given our customers outstanding service over the years.”

PAST AND PRESENT: This buffer has been used to smooth out the rough spots since the 1950s.

Of all the challenges that any business would face over 112 years, Stewart said the current COVID-19 situation is the worst.

“I know all retailers are struggling right now, so it’s not just us, but our business has taken a major hit from this,” she said. “We are still open at reduced hours, but only four days a week. We do offer a variety of services, which has helped, but we are very grateful that our loyal long-time customers keep supporting us.”

Stewart’s eventual successor is unknown at this point. Her daughter is a lawyer and is not involved with the business.

“We’ll figure something out,” she said. “I’m proud of my family’s history here on Market Street, and I plan on the store being here after I’m gone.”