Mighty Meyers: How do You Live Your Worst Nightmare?

“Let me tell you a funny story, so I stop crying.” Valerie Meyers pulls a tissue and dabs her eyes quickly. “I was back working on the website, and you know this was before it was easy, where you could just *boop boop boop* and it’s done. So I’m plugging away and my brain can’t take it anymore when Jeff comes back, crosses his arms and says ‘That’s taking entirely way too long,’ not knowing what this is all involving. I’m ready to unload it on him when all of a sudden the front door beeps with a customer! Now I have all this pent up energy, so I grabbed the trashcan and went to dump it in the garbage, I needed to get out of the room. I was so pissed off I took the trashcan and smacked it against the tree and it smashed to smithereens! I had no idea Rubbermaid could smash apart like that. And ya know then I’m picking up all the pieces with the neighbor looking at me crazy when I realized that I locked myself out of the back, and now I have to walk all the way around the front. I walked in and Jeff’s just looking at me all confused because he has no idea what just happened. When the customer’s left he came back and asked where the trash can was so I told him it was smashed and it was in the bigger trash can.  We ended up arguing a little bit, but he apologized and then asked again about the trash can. I told him, it’s really in the garbage, in bits and pieces, and he goes ‘So I guess I really made you mad?’ And I said ‘Yeah you really did!’ But it never, never lasted long.”

The laughter helps erase the last of a few tears in her voice, bringing back the gentle, easy smile that I can see she wears often, and well. This is just one of the stories Valerie tells about her husband as we sit tucked away back in the office of JA Meyers Jewelry. Two desks and their swivel chairs exist in this cramped space that operates as an office, kitchen, and anything else it needs to. She adjusts in her seat several times while I set up the recorder, and laughs when I indicate I’m ready.  “I just hope that I’m interesting enough!” 

JA Meyers Jewelry was established in Kutztown in 1977 by Jeff Meyers, who ran the business for 42 years before passing away of a heart attack 6 months ago. Jewelry had been a part of Jeff’s life since his childhood. His father was a watchmaker in the Allentown area, and he landed his first job in nothing less than a jewelry store.  It seemed as if he’d found a passion, and after high school he attended the Bowman Technical School in Lancaster. He became what’s known as a bench jeweler, someone who works repairing and appraising jewelry as well as setting stones, and creating molds to cast their own metal pieces. After an argument with a district manager resulted in him losing his job at JC Penny’s, he took a vacation with his daughters and decided while away that he didn’t want to work for anyone else. That’s how JA Meyers Jewelry came to be one of the long standing small businesses in the Kutztown Borough Community. 

Like most businesses in town you access the store through a small lobby, with other doors leading to apartments above.  When you turn the beautiful heavy gold door knob and walk into the store, it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time a little bit. Although when you look out the window you can see the hustle of main street traffic getting to South 222, the interior of the store feels peaceful, almost separate. In a town where college students are the focus 90% of the time, it’s refreshing and engaging to feel isolated from that. There are several beautiful cases full of rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings that make up the back portion of the room. But the real money maker for the business Valerie says are the high end Swiss watches showcased prominently in the front display case. “We got into Swiss watches back in the 90’s, which is when and why we got on the internet and built our first website.” That website was all Valerie, who wrote the code for not only that website, but for many of the watch AD’s she does to this day. Like her website, she’s a self made woman. She went into vocational school for commercial photography, and had a guaranteed job at a company after high school. She continued doing photography for several years but became disenchanted.  “I was in a dark room all the time and not really enjoying it, so I wound up in retail, which oddly enough helps me now.” 

It was as a manager of a clothing store that she met Jeff, who had been separated from his first wife and already established with the store in Kutztown. They met at Shorty's Bar in the early 90’s, through mutual friends. Although it wasn’t a love at first sight meeting, they kept running into each other and began dating in 1992, before marrying in an outdoor wedding in 1997. “I walked down a hill hoping that I wouldn’t tumble tin pot over the kettle all the way down the hill in my wedding dress.” she chuckles. During the time they were dating she had become tired of commuting to Allentown or Reading for work, and ended up getting a job at Sovereign Bank, which is now the Satander bank located on Constitution boulevard. She worked there for several years, starting as a part time teller until she worked her way up to opening new accounts, loans, and life annuities. As the Sovereign bank did well, she said they began losing the customer service that she enjoyed, and her job became more focused on the “sell sell sell”. Around this same time, Jeff was looking to expand into an online presence for a new interest, Swiss Watches, and Valerie became the perfect person to take on the job. She transitioned into working with her husband full time, writing the code for their first website which was, as she said “Pure torture, that first website was terrible.” 

 

As terrible as it was, she learned as much as she could, especially from their old tech support man from West Reading. He was their email and website server provider, as well as the one that Valerie found herself turning to with all of her odd computer and website questions. She gained so much knowledge from him, she says, but when he passed away suddenly from a heart attack, his customers lost everything on the servers because it was all passcode encrypted and not even his wife could access them. The Meyers lost their email account and that initial “terrible” website, but learned something valuable from the tragedy.  “Jeff said to me, ‘We need to make sure that you understand certain things about the store because that’s a business that is now defunct because no one can access any of his information.’ ” So along with being her husband's code writer, she began learning more about the business, going to trade shows with Jeff and even doing a diamond program at the Gemological Institute of America back in 2003 to expand her knowledge of gemstones. “No wonder I can’t remember anything,” she laughs, “2003? Wow. So I’m refreshing myself and going through things again. But some of the stuff has been automatic, and I’m grateful for that. I paid more attention than I realized.” 

In the true definition of a family business they were a team, each with their particular jobs that kept them separated, at least by the 4 or so feet between their desks. The work each did supported the other, coming together to really make the business shine. Jeff would often go to trade shows, and when she was unable to go due to scheduling she was Jeff’s “research girl” back at the home office. She would double check competing prices, information, anything he needed. But the times they went together were something special, as they enjoyed the show in different ways.  ‘We’d hit the show, we’d go in and he’d start looking at everything while people are coming up with hugs and kisses for me, and he always went ‘What is it with you? You’re like this social butterfly.’ Our personalities were just a good mix.” The tears, when they come, are sudden. “I’m sorry,” the throaty affectation of holding in tears coming out as she speaks and reaches for a box of tissues. “He just was so humble, he did not realize the impact that he had. I don’t think he thought of himself highly, and I couldn’t believe all of the wonderful nice things that people had to say.”  If one was able to attend their own funeral, Jeff would have indeed realized the impact that he had. “There were so many people in that room,” she says “and it was such a wonderful testament.” The service was held at Ludwick Funeral Homes, just a mile away from the store. As the people came, some from out of state, more and more chairs needed to be added to provide seating for all those who wanted to pay their respects. “That’s all those years of Jeff building relationships; that’s priceless.” Those relationships that Jeff built are the foundation that Valerie is able to continue her new life on, and how she learned “the value of building your reputation as a business, and treating people right.” Jeff has posthumously provided Valerie with essential connections to continue running the business he loved. These friends, as Valerie refers to many of them, have reached out to see what help she needs especially in areas that she has little to no knowledge or technical experience in, such as setting stones, or watch repair. For this, and other touching examples she shared with me, she called her late husband her “guardian angel”. 

 What I saw when I began my time with Valerie Meyers was a woman alone in running a store- a responsibility  placed on her shoulders by tragedy. Losing a loved one is never easy, especially when it happens as suddenly as Jeff left Valerie. Despite her attempts at resuscitation she lost her soulmate quickly that night, and began the next morning to live, in her own words, “her worst nightmare”. A new life for her began that day, full of unknowns and previously unimaginable grief.  Throughout all the grief there has been a consistent truth. She is fortified by the others that Jeff left behind: family, friends, neighbors, salespeople, patrons, fellow bench jewelers. In a true sense of community, Jeff’s community, they have supported Valerie as she continues on this new path, alone but never truly so. 

On this path Valerie is doing things that she never thought she could do, time and time again asked to make decisions that she only hopes are right, such as the recent purchase of a $6000 stainless steel watch. “Even though it's a chunk of change and it is really scary, I thought I could do well with this watch at this price.” She says, gaining confidence in her words. “So I bought it, and I’ve done really well with it.”  Along with going to trade shows, and purchasing several thousand dollar watches, she sold her very first engagement ring just a few weeks ago. It was a powerful experience for her, she said “He left and I just started crying. Wow, ya know, I did that.” 

 There is a quote that came to mind while writing this article that I find exemplifies who Valerie Meyers is, maybe not to her own eyes, but to the rest of us able to see her warmth and resilience:  “Nevertheless, she persisted.”