When Thomas Hill and his wife Chrisie opened their first jewelry store 20 years ago in Hinesville, Ga., they did it the careful way. Rather than incur debt, they purchased their initial inventory entirely from their savings and rented a modest retail space near Fort Stewart Army Base. They had no idea just how well and how quickly their prudence would serve them.
After a soft opening on a Friday, they officially opened on a Monday morning in September 2001 … and the next day changed everything: It was 9/11.
“We were located on the main road that goes into the military base about a mile up the road,” Hill recalls. “It’s a four-lane highway with a median, and that morning we noticed out the window that all the traffic going to the base was stopped. We thought there must’ve been a wreck. So I went outside, and saw the traffic was backed up the other direction too, at the light.
“Then somebody pulled up to the store and said, ‘Hey, did you hear what happened?’ I couldn’t believe it. We were across the highway from a strip mall, and I walked across all four lanes, went into the Kmart and bought a 9-inch TV, carried it out and walked back to the store. I turned it on just in time to see the second plane hit the tower.”
No one visited the new jewelry shop that day, and the base, normally open to visitors with passes, closed its gates and placed tanks in front. Two days later, the gates opened, but vehicles were searched before admittance.
“That first week, we probably only did a couple hundred dollars of repairs,” Hill says. “People didn’t know what was going to happen. … Our first month, I’d be surprised if we made $4,000.”
The base and the entire town of Hinesville were profoundly changed. Everyone in the 3rd Infantry Division was deployed, and recently married wives were informed their husbands might be gone for a year or more. Many moved off the base and went back home to live with their families, and countless houses were foreclosed and vacated.
Hill said he and his wife got through it largely because they hadn’t incurred debt, paid only about $1,000 in rent for the 900-square-foot retail space, and didn’t have employees.
“We had a talk after that first month: ‘Did we do the right thing? Should we close?’ And Chrisie said, ‘No, there’s nobody else like us here.’”
Lacking a computer at the outset, Chrisie kept track of inventory on index cards, drawing pictures and assigning item numbers to each piece. Then when a piece was sold, the card would go into a “Sold” box and the item would be reordered.
“She’s still got the box,” Hill says.
Not only did the business survive, but it thrived, so well that nine years ago the Hills relocated, expanded, and changed their store name to better fit the niche they’d grown into.
“On the highway it was hard for people to get in and out and to find parking,” Hill says. “Gold Mender was the name, and people thought we were just a repair shop, they didn’t know we sold jewelry. … So we had a contest to come up with a new name.”
The winning entry was Thomas Hill Jewelers. The elegant logo on a black background beckons visitors to a tidy brick building in downtown Hinesville, neighboring the police station, city hall, and a bank.
Inside, the 2,600-square-foot store is the picture of hospitality appreciated by jewelry shoppers and delivery people alike: A refrigerator painted black and adorned with the store logo holds a variety of soft drinks and juices; beginning in November, harried holiday shoppers will find crackers and cookies handy on the counters; and customers’ children can play safely in a toy castle.
A GIA-certified gemologist, Hill grew up in Panama City, Fla., and got into the jewelry business by way of a manager-trainee program at Gordon’s Jewelry after a year of college in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“That’s how I met my wife,” he says.
After moving to Savannah, Georgia in 1986, the two continued to work in jewelry. Chrisie worked for Levy Jewelers out of Savannah, and Thomas was district manager for Zale’s for 16 years. He also operated a repair shop in Brunswick, Georgia, and serviced Friedman’s Jewelers in Hinesville.
Hill says his work for Friedman’s – acquiring items through his repair connections that Friedman’s would then resell at retail – made him want to get into retail himself.
When they decided to open Gold Mender, they acquired brands that were similar in style but more modest in price than the major brands.
“I would have to look in the box, but I don’t think we had anything over $2,000 to start with,” he says. “Now we make more monthly than we did that entire first year.”
That box of index cards is more a nostalgia item today, as the store enjoys the ease of Edge software and QuickBooks, not to mention a longstanding Facebook presence that became a very big deal just in time for the COVID pandemic.
Hill says they hired their social-media guru, Marsha Hilton, in December 2019, and she handles all the store’s live online sales, auctions, and videos.
“It’s kind of exciting and fun, it stretches us. We wouldn’t be doing live auctions if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.”
As for changes in the business brought on by the pandemic, Hill says it’s not so much in the way he does business, but in the amount of business.
“Last year we saw a 36 to 37 percent increase in sales over the previous year. And this year we’re up 60 percent over last year. We’ve sold more diamonds over a carat so far this year than we have in the last 10 years.
“I think people are re-evaluating relationships because you never know what’s going to happen. We’re not going to be here forever, so we might as well enjoy it.”