SALEM — The sign outside 179 Essex St. says it’s a store closing, but for loyal customers of Bernard’s Jeweler’s this is a wake.
“I’m going to miss you,” a woman said yesterday as she scurried past store owners Ray Tetrault Jr. and his younger brother, Tom. “I’m going to start crying.”
For 80 years, Bernard’s Jeweler’s has been a trusted family business for countless Salem and North Shore residents. This is where new parents went for baby spoons and where nervous young men bought engagement rings.
“I actually waited on one customer who was a fourth generation,” said Tom Tetrault.
As much as Derby Wharf or Old Town Hall, Bernard’s is a city landmark, the last of the big-name stores from the days when Essex Street was shopper’s heaven.
It was once part of a fabled retail lineup that included Almy’s, Daniel Low, Rook’s Furriers, Lally Shoe, L.H. Rogers, Newmark’s, Weber’s, Clark and Friend, Jerry’s Army & Navy Store, and Colonial Men’s Shop.
Bernard’s announced the closing Friday and was swamped with customers on Saturday. The store was shut yesterday while staff prepared for a going-out-of-business sale that begins today, but it didn’t stop customers from shaking the front door and peering through the windows.
“It’s a tough decision,” said Ray Jr., 72, who is retiring along with Tom, 59.
“Business is still good,” Tom said. “It’s just time.”
The brothers worked here as boys, starting out in the stock room and doing whatever they could to help their father, Raymond Tetrault Sr., who founded the business in 1934 when he was only 21 and the country was struggling through the Great Depression.
It was a bold venture for Tetrault Sr., who was an orphan by the time he was 10 and was raised by grandparents in a French-Canadian neighborhood around the old St. Joseph Church. After graduating from the former Salem Commercial School, he saved $1,000 working as a bookkeeper and parts manager at the old Mill Hill Motors and opened the jewelry business with a cousin.
“He learned to become very independent and aggressive at a very young age,” said Tom.
The first store was at the corner of Liberty and Essex streets, about where the entrance is today to the Peabody Essex Museum. In 1936, Tetrault partnered with Bernard Goldberg — hence the name “Bernard’s” — and moved a few doors down on Essex Street.
They moved to the present location in 1965, a stone’s throw from where the business began.
When Goldberg died in the fall of 1968, Ray Jr. came home from Washington, D.C., where he was starting a career as an economist with the Department of Labor.
“I offered to take a leave and help at Christmas time,” Ray Jr. said. He never left.
In 1978, Ray and Tom bought the business from their father, who stayed on into his 80s.
The Tetrault brothers give a lot of credit for the store’s success and reputation to their staff, which includes many longtime employees. Phil Potvin, the bench jeweler, and Sylvia Doyle have been with them more than 45 years. Two other employees retired recently after even longer careers.
The Tetraults say they thought about selling the business — but not for long.
“We developed a reputation with our customers and the community,” Tom said. “You can’t sell something like that.”
Today is the first day of a closing sale for a business that many customers consider family. And it’s hard to say goodbye.
“Everybody’s coming in crying,” said Tom.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.