Jewelry storeowners with a lengthy history tend to artfully blend new renovations with old memorabilia sprinkled in for posterity’s sake. Not Mike Littlejohn, owner of Auburn, Indiana-based Carbaugh Jewelers. Mike is all store history all the time, in paying homage to his store’s 120 years of continuous operations.
From the tin ceiling tiles, the old Victrola players and original display cases, as well as his bench and a number of the tools still used today, Mike fully embraces his store’s extensive history. For decades he has proudly maintained as much of the original store from 1917 as possible, the store’s second location after its opening in 1901.
Carbaugh’s started out as Little Jewelers. As the Victorian Era was coming to a close, Edward Little was a young man looking for a vocation that would clear a career path for many years to come. Mike possesses an encyclopedic memory of his store’s history. The exact reason why Edward Little apprenticed at D. A. Hodge’s jewelry store, however, is somewhat of an educated guess.
“As far as I know, Edward Little did not have any formal training or influences that would have steered him toward owning a jewelry store,” says Mike. “The most logical assumption is he was simply looking for a way to make a living and support his family.”
Edward Little apprenticed under D. A. Hodge in Auburn. Edward then moved to Garrett, Indiana, to open his own store. Nine months later he returned to Auburn and opened Little Jewelers.
Upon opening his doors for business, Edward Little was similar to many merchants of the time. “Little Jewelers, when it opened, was more of a general merchandise store,” says Mike. “After reviewing some of the original purchasing orders and inventory lists the store did sell jewelry and watches, but he also sold eyeglasses and optical supplies, Victrola phonographs, as well as a range of general merchandise including candy.”
In the first decades of operation Victrola players and the recorded music on the phonograph tubes were a large part of the store’s inventory. Mike enjoys making light of the down-the-decades transformation from Little Jewelers to Carbaugh Jewelers.
“It was a record store that was converted into a jewelry store,” says Mike. “The general merchandise of the time was consistent mercantilism of the era. And, the candy was actually fine chocolates – the add-on sale of the day for a jewelry purchase.”
Carbaugh’s has a unique history of high school-aged young men looking for work and ending up as life-long jewelers, starting with Charles Carbaugh in 1911. “Charles started working at Little’s doing odd jobs around the store,” says Mike. “He never intended on doing apprentice work with Edward at the time, but that’s what ended up happening.”
The more Charles became involved in the business of selling jewelry and watches, the more he learned about watchmaking and gemology, earning certification in both fields of study. His career and educational goals began the change from a general merchandise store to a jewelry store.
“His studies in watchmaking and gemology brought more diamonds and diamond jewelry into the store,” says Mike. “It was a pivotal change for the store at the time. Pocket watches were also big sellers.”
Other major changes would transform the business in Charles’s early years. Six years after joining the store, Edward Little moved the store from its original location to its current location in 1917. At a time when people all over the world hunkered down to wait for World War I to end, Edward Little gambled on making a bold move.
“It was evident that Edward was tired of renting his store space and wanted to own,” says Mike. “The move was a very practical business decision at the time and he gained a lot of space, including an upstairs, which I currently use for storage.”
Charles’s career as a jeweler took a slight pause as he served in World War I. Upon his return from the war, over time Charles and Edward established a partnership, forming a buy-sell agreement. When Edward died in 1956, Charles purchased the jewelry store interests from Edward’s estate and renamed the store Carbaugh Jewelers in 1960 to reflect the new ownership.
Unfortunately, Charles’s tenure as owner was short lived. When he died in 1962, his son Bob and wife Betty took over as the store’s owners. The couple continued the traditions of their father by bringing in then trending names in watch brands – Bulova and Accutron at first, then Seiko, Citizen and Pulsar to name a few. Inventory management brought in ranges of jewelry.
Bob was known to be a techie of the times. He brought computerization to the operations of the store, namely bookkeeping and inventory management. When Mike joined the jewelry store in 1980 while in high school, even as a young man he noticed the older storeowners had learned new tricks of the trade. Similar to the young men before him, Mike started working at Carbaugh’s during high school without any plans to apprentice.
Mike’s formal training includes graduating from Trenton Jewelry School in Memphis. Over time that changed for Mike as he gained product knowledge essentials and bench work basics. Mike learned and worked at the bench where Edward Little toiled. “There’s a stamp in one of the bench drawers to prove it,” says Mike.
Mike’s interests in retail jewelry and bench work progressed over time. In 1997, he purchased the store from Bob and Betty. In the late 1990s, Mike went to work making the store his own. Part of that were minor changes and updates. But a majority of his efforts as the new owner was the continuation of Carbaugh’s with an emphasis on its lengthy and rich history.
In 2001, Mike experienced his first business challenge with the recession that came after the combined blows of the dotcom bomb and the 911 terrorist attacks. But nothing could prepare him for the Great Recession in the wake of the housing market crash of 2009.
It was during this time, however, that Mike, like many of his peers, found ways to reinvent his operations. “[In the wake of the housing market crash] it was obvious people couldn’t budget for new jewelry purchases,” says Mike. “So I held a ‘Redesign, Renew, Recreate’ event in 2009. It got me through the tough times and became a defining niche for me and the store.”
Mike’s is pleased that he not only weathered difficult economic times but found a characterizing way to keep Carbaugh’s history going. On the eve of his sixties, Mike is hoping to establish succession plans to keep the Carbaugh Jeweler name a part of Auburn’s downtown retail legacy well into the future.