South Boston News & Record
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SoVaNow.com / February 14, 2013His grandfather was a builder who constructed Main Street United Methodist Church, plus several homes in South Boston. His father was a carpenter, his uncle an architect. His brother carried on the family tradition by also becoming a carpenter. But Levi Hamilton decided early in life he wanted to build something different.
As a teenager, he started working part-time in 1946 as a handy man for Joe Hodges, who had just opened Hodges Jewel Box on Main Street in South Boston.
Hamilton’s teen ambition would lead him to eventually become the manager and owner of the shop, a career that has spanned seven decades and comes to end this week, when Hodges Jewel Box closes for good.
When he first started out at Hodges, young Hamilton asked the principal at his school, Sam Barksdale, if he could schedule his study hall at the end of the school day. Hamilton recalled how he would leave school early and head down to the jewelry store, where he washed windows, scrubbed floors and wrapped packages. He also built a barricade around the storefront during a renovation many years ago.
He and Hodges became fast friends during their many years working together at the store. Hamilton still marvels at the meticulous records his former boss kept, showing exactly how many watches (prices included) he sold to men each month. He kept a list for ladies watches as well.
His post-high school experience was punctuated by a two-and-a-half year volunteer stint in the Air Force. After getting out, he decided to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered through the GI Bill. Hamilton enrolled in an 18-month training course at Peters College of Watchmaking in Washington, D.C.
Married by this time, he was in a hurry “to make some money,” Hamilton recalled this week, so he worked hard and completed the course in 12 months, rather than 18.
He returned to South Boston and went back to work at the Jewel Box as a watchmaker. He and Hodges would spend hours playing chess when things were slow around the store.
“But he was a much better chess player than I was,” said Hamilton with a smile.
Hodges suffered a heart attack in October 1978 and never returned to work, although he lived for five or six more years. He left the Jewel Box to his wife, Martha, and to Hamilton. In November 1983, Hamilton bought the store from the Hodges’ after local attorney Bill Greer drew up the sale papers. Mrs. Hodges wanted to have a grand re-opening featuring her presenting the keys to the building to Hamilton.
“But we decided that might not be a good idea,” Hamilton said.
The reason: a black man owning and operating a prominent retail store in downtown South Boston was not accepted by everyone at the time. But Hamilton said he took assurance in something Hodges once told him — “I have found out if you give people the service they want, they don’t care what color you are.”
Before Hodges died, he took a diamond ring off his finger and slipped it on Hamilton’s. “If you’re going to sell diamonds, you need to be wearing one,” he told Hamilton.
As owner of the Jewel Box, Hamilton has sold much of his merchandise on credit; some customers were slow to pay down their bills, and some never paid at all, but one who stands out in Hamilton’s memory is a man who would come by each week to dutifully put down 50 cents on his account. Able to find only part-time work, he wasn’t able to pay off his bill for ten years.
Eventually, however, the man landed a full-time job when Daystrom opened in town. Looking to get married, he went to buy a wedding ring, but Hamilton reminded him of his old bill. The man ended up purchasing a wedding band and eventually paying his old bill, too. “I’ll bet that man spent $3,000 all told with me over the years,” Hamilton remembered.
Over his many years as owner of the Jewel Box, Hamilton said he has enjoyed dealing with the people of the community, and until the last two years, he said, business was good.
But now comes his last day at the jewelry store. Hodges Jewel Box will close this Friday, Feb. 15, leaving Hamilton with more time to enjoy the home he built on North Main Street back in 1962, with help from his father, brother and brother-in-law. The original structure cost $6,000. He doubled the size of home in 1986, costing $29,000 more.
On Monday, when Hodges Jewel Box normally closes for business, visitors could be seen peering in the door and the telephone rang incessantly. It was a sign of just how much his customers will miss the friendly service they have come to expect from Hamilton over the past 30 years.
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