At one time, the shelves at The Workingman’s Store were stocked full of merchandise.
Store owner Paul L. Jewell has a newspaper clipping from the 1980s with the family posing in front of a wall full of work boots and shoes.
“At one time, we had 1,700 pair of shoes on that wall,” he said. “Now we’re down to 12 or 13.”
The store was started in 1954 by Jewell’s father, Paul M. Jewell, and has served Hamilton and the North End for 58 years. But business has slowed to a trickle, and after finding out two years ago that he has cancer, Jewell has decided that he will close the store as soon as he is able to move the remaining merchandise.
Before starting The Workingman’s Store, the senior Mr. Jewell worked for Hamilton Brokerage, a clothing store on High Street near where the Government Services Center now stands.
Hamilton Brokerage sold clothing, a little on the high end, Jewell said, selling men’s business suits and such.
“The family that owned it, one day the mother and son came in and told the man who ran it that they were taking over,” Jewell said. “My dad had been their buyer for the last 15 years and more or less ran the place, but they just gave him an extra day’s pay, $15, and sent him home.”
There were many clothing and department stores in downtown Hamilton at that time, Jewell said, but after three weeks, his father wasn’t having any luck with any of them.
One afternoon, he was plugging away trying to find work and was walking on High Street when he ran into a Hamilton Brokerage customer, a farmer named Mr. Schwab.
Mr. Schwab asked Mr. Jewell if it wasn’t a little late for him to be on his lunch break, and Mr. Jewell told him what had happened. Mr. Schwab said that Jewell should open his own store, but Mr. Jewell told him he didn’t have any money for that.
“Mr. Schwab pulled a check book out of the pocket of his overalls and used dad’s back to write out a check,” Jewell said. “He left the amount blank and the date blank and said, ‘Start a store for the working man.’ ”
So Mr. Jewell found an 800-square-foot store front on Heaton Street, then in the heart of Hamilton’s industry, and opened The Workingman’s Store in the summer of 1954. Jewell still has a copy of the advertising from their opening, with sales on men’s work shoes from $3.45 to $10.95, dress Oxfords from $4.95 to $10.94 and 8-ounce canvas work gloves for 19 cents a pair. Wool felt hats were $3.95.
Jewell also has a couple of copies left of the hand-written post cards that the family helped mail out, going through the phone directory finding addresses, to announce the store opening.
The business did so well that when the Pillsbury Union left the building next door, they were able to expand to 1,600 square feet, and even took over the back rooms and upstairs of the Paul Harris Shoe Store and Repair to hold extra merchandise.
The Workingman’s Store flourished enough to finance the opening of the Jewell Department Store in College Corner in 1965, but it burned out in 1969 and the family never re-opened it.
In 1965, Jewell went to work for his father for $2 an hour, leaving his $2.80 an hour job at Champion International.
In 1980, they moved to the current location, 4,500 square feet in a former machine shop.
The elder Mr. Jewell worked every day at the store well into his 80s, and passed away about eight years ago. Although he “officially retired” near the end of his days, he still called the store every day to see what was going on.
“He always told us, ‘Look up and down the street before you lock up. You might get a last-minute customer. We don’t want anyone going to the big stores’,” Jewell recalled.
That was the kind of service they built the store on. Jewell said his mother, who had worked at the Robinson-Schwenn Department Store before coming to work for the family business, used to make free alterations when all of the other stores in town would charge extra.
“Everybody loved my dad,” Jewell said. “The harshest thing he ever said to me was one day when a salesman came in and dad pulled me aside. ‘Don’t buy too much today,’ he said. ‘The funds are low.’ He never got harsher than that.”
Eventually, however, the big stores won out and the industry all left the area.
“We had a good business through the ’80s and ’90s,” Jewell said. “At one time we had over 100 charge accounts with all of Hamilton’s big manufacturers, but one by one they left.”
Now, he’s hoping someone will come along and buy out the remaining stock.
Until then, everything is marked down 50 percent until it’s all gone.
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