BRISTOL, Va. — As a boy, Frank Molteni played among the glass showcases and talked with customers and employees inside his family’s jewelry store.
In the decades since, his children and grandchildren visited him there and did the same. After this month, however, any such impromptu family gatherings will occur somewhere other than inside 531 State St., because Molteni is retiring and Ryland’s Jewelers — one of the region’s oldest family-owned businesses — will close.
D.B. Ryland established the downtown store in 1906 and Molteni’s father and uncle kept the established name after they bought the business in 1948.
“My uncle operated a jewelry store in Roanoke and was the mayor of Roanoke,” Molteni said Thursday. “Somehow — when Oak Ridge [Tenn.] opened up — there was only one of everything and my uncle got a jewelry store in there. He did well and hired my dad — who was working in a paper mill in Big Island, Va. — we went to Oak Ridge from 1944 to 1948.”
The federal government created the city just west of Knoxville, Tenn., in 1942 to develop the Manhattan Project and technology to produce the atomic bomb. Known as the “Secret City,” the population of Oak Ridge swelled from 3,000 in 1942 to 75,000 in just three years.
“I remember the soldiers and the gates and you couldn’t get to certain places without certain passes. In ’48, they [family] decided to leave Oak Ridge and buy the store here in Bristol,” Molteni said.
While he liked to play there as a child, Molteni initially wanted no part of working in the family business.
“When I was growing up I didn’t want to do this. I graduated from college, got drafted and spent two years in the Army. Then I went to work for First National Exchange Bank in Roanoke. I worked there about 3 years and decided to come back then,” he said.
“Having worked for a large corporation, you just do as you’re told. A young person, you don’t have much control. But here I could determine my own destiny.”
Long known as a commercial center, the Twin City was booming for much of the store’s existence and the business survived a significant local downturn during the 1980s and 1990s.
“I remember when I came back here in ’69 how crowded the streets were pre-mall. When the mall came we lost some customers but kept the faithful ones,” he said. “Our business was great up until five or six years ago, then it started dropping due to the economy.”
Firms willing to charge less, a weak economy and competition from Internet sellers have eroded the marketplace, he said.
“The Internet is killing small business, which is sad,” Molteni said, noting that he doesn’t have a website and there is no computer inside his store.
A certified gemologist with extensive training, Molteni said his business was built around selling high quality diamonds, colored stones and fine jewelry products.
“You pick your own niche and you stay there,” he explained. “You don’t want to compete with so-called discounters. You don’t try to play the whole field. I just wanted to play the top of the line. I didn’t know how to do the other and they would have eaten me alive if I had. That was just my theory. Having a satisfied customer is what I wanted. I’m proud of the items I sold. I’m probably one of the last jewelry stores to carry bridal services. Most jewelry stores don’t do that. That was good business. It brought people in.”
Longtime friends will be missed, he said.
“I’ve really enjoyed my customers and will definitely miss them. You have a lot of repeat customers — not as many as we used to — but a lot of repeat customers from out of the coalfields, Kingsport and Bristol,” Molteni said.
There may be no computer, but the store has sales records dating back to 1910. Sometimes, he said, that wasn’t enough.
“I’m proud I had outstanding recordkeeping but the IRS didn’t think so one time,” a grinning Molteni said.
“They came in here one time and we hadn’t charged for engraving on anything for a long time. They [IRS] got me to go back five years and said I wouldn’t have been able to have sold items if I didn’t engrave it. I thought that was nuts. The state agreed but they still got me.”
Is he sad the family business won’t continue?
“No. I’m happy they’re not because I think small retail is in trouble,” Molteni said.
Instead, he looks forward to spending time with his wife, Mary, his children and grandchildren — minus the showcases, precious stones and anxious customers.
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