Like the diamonds underneath its glass, William Penn Jewelers & Watchmakers is freshly polished and ready to shine. After temporary closure following the death of longtime proprietor Yefim Shimenko, the Squirrel Hill store located at 1837 Murray Ave. has reopened.
Though its iconic green carpeting is gone, its pink walls are painted white and a planter now rests where an island display case once was, the mom-and-pop shop still boasts the same family-owned, customer-first feel, said Tina Shimenko, Yefim’s daughter-in-law.
“We’re still here. We’ve kind of reinvented ourselves a little bit, but all of the good is still here,” she said.
For 40 years, William Penn Jewelers & Watchmakers was a place to purchase, repair or size jewelry. Other options existed nearby, but its appeal rested largely on the work of its owner, Yefim Shimenko, a Jewish Ukrainian emigre who arrived in Pittsburgh in 1979.
“He was the best. I bought everything that I own practically over there,” said Mary Ellen Chester, a stylist at Shear Visions Beauty Salon, which is three doors down on Murray Ave.
“For 20 years, he did my customer repair work,” echoed Dave Masters, a State Farm Insurance agent, whose office is across the street. “There were other jewelry stores that might take advantage of people, or charge a lot more, but Yefim and his prices were always reasonable. And his work was always quality. It was always done on time.”
Shimenko was a master jeweler whose abilities exceeded those of most professionals, said Marshall Goughneour, a former manager at Goldstock’s Diamonds & Fine Jewelry.
“You get guys that can do the bench work, which is setting the stone, sizing a ring, soldering a bracelet, etc., but those guys aren’t necessarily able to sit down and actually make something from scratch,” explained Goughneour. “If you brought him in a doodle on a piece of paper, over the course of whatever time it would take, he could make it into the ring or pendant or whatever it is you were looking for.”
Shimenko passed away in November 2018, just around the time when Goldstock’s (a more than 100-year-old business) closed. On the recommendation of a friend, Goughneour was connected with Tina Shimenko. The two met for coffee at 61C Cafe in Squirrel Hill and discussed possibilities.
“When Yefim passed, we were deciding whether to close all together, consolidate, maybe close Regent Square, maybe close this one,” she said.
In the end, the Shimenko family (Tina’s husband, Michael, is also a jeweler) decided to keep both stores running, hire Goughneour and redo the Squirrel Hill site.
Though Goughneour was committed to maintaining a store consistent with the family’s reputation, he had some immediate ideas for what was going to change: the dated sign, the paint color and large island display case.
“When I first walked in the room, [my thought was] there was no way in hell I was doing this,” he said. “But as we started to go through the process, it was just one thing led slightly into another.”
Smaller remodels led way to larger changes and months later, the space is now complete. Shimenko is proud of the look and the fact that the store is still there. Customers are happy, too.
“I’m glad that they reopened it,” said Chester.
“I’m glad they opened next-door, to be honest. I mean, not that I don’t want to go visit Tina and Michael over in Regent Square, but it’s just easier. I could walk across the street,” he said.
Masters has a watch battery that needs to be replaced. Chester had hers done a while back. That sort of work, general repairs and new purchases are among the myriad things that can be presented to a jeweler on a daily basis, explained Goughneour.
The ability to juggle such responsibilities, understand the intricacies of the craft and handle each customer’s needs “takes years to develop,” said Shimenko.
“The biggest thing is that people are just people,” said Goughneour. “You just take each customer for what they want and what it is that they’re looking for and try to do your best to make that dream come true. Because when you’re talking about jewelry, it is a dream. For most people, whether they’re dropping a couple hundred dollars on a fashion line or a couple thousand dollars in that engagement case, their money is hard spent.”
Goughneour and Shimenko both talked about changes in the jewelry trade — and the way the internet has wreaked havoc on independent shop owners. Although there is a value in technology, customer service should not be dismissed, noted Goughneour.
“Sure, you can go online and buy an engagement ring, but isn’t it nice to be able to come in the store and see it and know that we’re here to polish it, clean it, size it?” said Shimenko. “I have customers from 20 years ago that they bring their jewelry back in, and my husband will still do little things for no charge, just because they’re our customer.”
“The internet, the big department stores and the big box stores, they’ve taken so much of the business over the years. It’s really quite a struggle to be a mom-and-pop store,” she continued. “It cracks me up because somebody was sharing on Facebook to ‘make sure you shop local, even if it’s 10 percent more.’ And my answer back to that was, ‘Who said I’m gonna be 10 percent more?’ Everybody assumes that the internet is cheaper. I have the freedom to do as I want. Why can’t I have the better price?”
Mom-and-pop stores also foster warm relationships.
“Yefim, he was like an institution,” said Chester.
Pointing to a part of the store, Shimenko recalled her deceased father-in-law and the magnifying loupe he regularly wore. “He had his little bench right here where he would always wait on customers,” she said.
Added Chester, “I miss him, but I like having it open next door so I can just go over there. It’s like part of him is there.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.