Bobby Heiser, fifth generation jeweler, keeps respected family legacy alive
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Published in the Hannibal Courier-Post Jan. 10, 2015
Five generations of Bobby Heiser’s family – all jewelers who contributed to Hannibal’s past prosperity – are looking over his shoulder each morning as he arrives for work at Crescent Jewelry.
“I come in the store and still expect to see Dad sitting at the desk” just beyond the sales counter, 67-year-old Bobby said, making reference to Robert Heiser Sr., and the family’s store, located at 207 Broadway in downtown Hannibal since 1922.
But the history of the family’s jewelry business goes much deeper that that. Bobby’s father, Robert Heiser, worked for his father, Alvin Heiser, who learned the trade from his father, Louis Heiser. Louis Heiser, a watch repairman in his own right, married Lena Lackner in 1876. She was the daughter of Wm. C. Lackner, a watchmaker in Hannibal, conducting business on the corner of Broadway and Main as early as the end of the Civil War.
Working as he does in the midst of his family’s legacy, Bobby sentimentally surrounds himself with keepsakes from the past.
A catalogue published in 1919 for the Rogers and Thurman Co., in Chicago, contains a line drawing of a watchmaker’s bench like the one he has in his store. “It was like an old sewing machine,” Bobby said. “It had a treadle you pumped with your feet to turn the lathe.” The solid oak watchmaker’s bench sold for $24 the year the catalogue was published. Of the Heiser keepsake, the treadle mechanism was removed sometime during its history, and an electric motor added. “In the early days they used to make watch parts for repairs. You didn’t order them,” he said.
The treadle mechanism is in a box upstairs over the store, he said, along with a collection of postcards from family members that were mailed from their homeland in Germany. “We have postcards written in German,” he said.
Other pieces of jewelry-store legacy include the wall units that are situated behind the sales counters.
“My great uncle, Pete Erickson, remembered when he was a child the delivery of the wall cases to the Shepard Jewelry Store (at 207 Broadway). The cases were made in Quincy, and brought by steamboat to Hannibal, then to the store by horse and wagon. That would have been 100- to 125-years ago.”
Jewelry store functions evolve
The function of jewelry stores has changed dramatically since 1876 when Louis Heiser married Lena Lackner, in a merger which combined the knowledge and resources of two German jewelry families.
For instance - beginning in the early days - it was very common for jewelers to also serve as optometrists.
Carl Shepard, who owned the 207 Broadway building prior to the sale to the Heisers, was a jeweler and an optometrist, Bobby said. And the same was true for the generations of Heiser men from Alvin forward.
“All you needed was a test kit. The kit had frames and you could change the lenses” in order to correct vision, Bobby said. “Optometrists were tradesmen who fit glasses by trial and error. Glasses were all gold or gold filled, so the jewelers could do repairs and fit the glasses.”
Bobby’s father was the first generation to go to school to become a licensed optometrist, attending the Southern School of Optometry in Memphis. “When Dad came back, he had the instruments and education,” to test eyes in the store, where he worked from 1942 to 1965. From 1965 to 1994 Dr. Heiser also worked across the street at Lee Optical Co., in Hannibal.
as a 7-year-old
Seven-year-old Bobby Heiser started working in his family’s jewelry store when his mother first went to work.
“They’d drop me off at McCooey” in the mornings, Bobby said, and Robert Heiser Sr., and his wife, Heiress, would drive downtown to open the store. In the afternoons, Bobby walked the 10 blocks along Broadway to reunite with his parents, and to work until the store closed for the evening.
“They built a little step stool for me,” Bobby said. “I’d come in at three o’clock and polish the jewelry that Dad and Uncle Pete had repaired or resized during the day.”
On weekends, the elder Heiser would take the engraving machine home. Engraving was a free service for customers. “On Sundays, he and I would engrave all day.”
Bobby continued to work at the store throughout high school, and on vacations during college. He always knew his destiny was at the shop, and that vision came to fruition. This year marks his 60th working at Crescent Jewelry.
Bobby Heiser credits the success of the family business under his reign to building relationships with employees and customers, rather than focusing strictly on merchandising.
For example, his great uncle, Pete Erickson, was a watchmaker and worked for the Heiser family for many years. “I spent more time with Pete than most people spend with their parents,” Bobby said.
“Close to the end, I stopped by his house to bring him a little gift. ‘I worked for your dad, Pete said, and I worked for your granddad. You’re the only one I ever worked with.’
“We were really close,” Bobby said.
That same ambiance exists with many long-time customers. “I’ve had relationships with some families for four generations. Customers come from every economic level. They are not just customers, they are friends. It’s the relationships, not total sales, that are fulfilling.”
And his staff has a similar loyalty. Lisa Willet has worked at Crescent Jewelry since May of 1976. Her co-worker Debbie Mastin, has been there for 18 years.
The future of the business
In 1979 Bobby married Donna Mastin. Her dad was Robert Matson, who worked at Mark Twain Produce.
“She (and a friend) were running up and down Broadway on their bikes, and would flirt with Frank Crowe and me. I was sort of a scallywag. Donna and I dated five years before we got married. I’m seven years her senior.
“Donna (who has worked at F&M Bank for 39 years) and I tried to have children,” he said, his voice trailing a bit. He admits that he regrets not having a son to pass the business on to.
So what will happen to this generational business when destiny knocks at Bobby’s door?
The Lackner/Heiser jewelry reign in Hannibal will end, he said.
“I’ve had nieces and nephews” express an interest in the business, “but nobody wanted to take it. They didn’t want to work all the hours I used to work.”
After his father died in 1999, “I’d work the floor all day,” then work until midnight doing the bookwork and making repairs. Four years ago he hired Mickey McGuire to do jewelry repairs, which has enabled Bobby to work more reasonable hours.
“It was hard on Donna,” he said. “Before Mickey came here I averaged 65-70 hours a week.”
In the meantime, it is business as usual for Crescent Jewelry. Bobby still considers operating the jewelry store to be fun. “If it ever gets to the point that it’s not fun anymore, I will close,” he said. “If it’s not fun, I’m out of here.”
Bobby Heiser explained that brothers Alvin and Carl Heiser, sons of Louis W. Heiser and Lena Lackner Heiser, operated Heiser Jewelry Company on South Main Street as a partnership.
“Carl Shepard had a jewelry store in this building (at 207 Broadway) and in 1922, he went broke. The Heisers were all working together around the corner, with too many families for one business to support.” The Heisers bought the Broadway property under the partnership.
For a year, they leased the store to a jeweler “who did all sorts of unethical things,” Bobby said. The Heisers finally bought all of the store fixtures, and Al Heiser and his family moved into the new store, while Carl Heiser and his family continued to operate Heiser Jewelry on South Main. Al Heiser named the new store Crescent Jewelry, the name that continues today.
“They were in partnership until grandfather passed away,” Bobby said, in the mid 1940s. Al died without a will, and hard feelings developed between the two brothers’ families. “The families disagreed and stopped the partnership.”
Both businesses continued, although operated separately. Bobby remained friends with his cousin, Dick Heiser, who took over operation of Heiser’s Jewelry from his father Carl. “Dick invited me to join the Lion’s Club,” Bobby said, a civic affiliation that continues to this day.
Bobby’s grandmother, Alveda (Vita), continued to work at Crescent Jewelry after her husband’s death. “Vita and I worked together 13-14 years until she died,” Bobby said.
Bobby Heiser’s eyes light up when he begins talking about his childhood in Hannibal.
His sister was four years older, and she would “force” Bobby to practice dancing with her. “I learned the jitterbug from her. I knew how to dance at the sock hops. I won the twist contest at Hannibal Junior High School with Linda Bozarth.”
He took typing in high school, and got to be pretty good at it, typing 65 words per minute with no mistakes on a manual typewriter. And he gained proficiency in English and spelling under the tutelage of Gracille King, high school English teacher.
Fellow students would ask Bobby to type their research papers.
If they gave him a week to type it, he charged them 50 cents a sheet. If he had 3 days to type it, he charged 75 cents a sheet. If they brought it to him at the last minute, “I charged a buck and a quarter a page. I’d correct punctuation and spelling.”
His father had been a three-year football letterman at Hannibal High School, and Bobby followed in his father’s footsteps.
“I loved high school football,” he said. “I was not a great athlete, but I had a lot of effort and I tried. I was lucky enough to start during my sophomore, junior and senior years. It was the first thing I accomplished on my own. It gave me a sense of accomplishment.” He is a life-long member of Hannibal High School’s booster club, attending almost all football games, both at home and away.
Playing football in high school earned him a scholarship to attend Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where he played for one year. His grades were less than stellar. He ultimately transferred to Culver-Stockton College in Canton.
While home on college breaks, he would help his parents.
“I did a lot of washing for Mom and Dad,” he said. “I’d pull the sheets off the bed and take them downstairs. I’d get the sheets going and go upstairs to dust and vacuum. I’d go put the sheets in the dryer, do the dishes, and then put the sheets back on the bed. I’d walk downtown at noon and we’d all have lunch together.”
His laundry skills paid off on campus. “I had an ironing board at college,” he said, and it proved to be a way for the young entrepreneur to earn a little extra spending money. On dance nights, he would arrange to pick up his date a half hour later than usual. He’d set up the ironing board, and other guys would beg him to iron their shirts. “I’ll be late for my date,” he’d tell them, “but give me a dollar and I’ll do it.
“I never was late for my date. And we didn’t have stay press back then,” he said with a grin.
Bobby graduated from Culver-Stockton College in 1969 with a degree in business administration and economics. “I was not an academic scholar, but I did graduate. I was lucky that learning came fairly easily to me.
“I had a job offer right out of college that paid more than I make now. I knew that eventually I wanted to be here,” he said, but he thought it would be a good idea to work in the city for a while, save some money, and then come back home. “The week before I was to show up for the job, Mom got sick. She had last rites three times. She survived, but Dad needed to take care of her, so I came back to help out at the store.” Bobby has been there ever since, and has few regrets.
“I didn’t have expectations of being a millionaire,” he said. “Donna and I are very frugal.”
What would the generations that preceded him in the jewelry business think if they could see the store today?
“I’d hope they’d be proud,” Bobby said. “It’s hard being an independent business. But we are still successful and in business. Luckily, we have loyal customers.”
Because he worked side-by-side with his father in the business from 1969 until his father died in 1999, Bobby has a better feel for his father’s viewpoint.
He said his father was like many other men of his generation. “They always thought you could do better. He’d never tell me I did good at the store, but he’d tell Mom, and she’d tell me. I got the praise second hand.
“Dad did a lot for me. Mom was real strong, too. Mom was my real cheerleader.
“Dad used to criticize me a lot. I was the caregiver at the end. I know he loved me, but it was not pleasant. It was sad at the end.”
Bobby Heiser is a strong supporter of the Hannibal YMCA.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the Y Men’s Club. We’ve done so much for the Y,” he said. As a founding member of the club, he was on the ground floor of the establishment of one of Hannibal’s most popular summer events: Mud Volleyball. The Mud Volleyball tournament, held over the Fourth of July weekend, serves as a major fundraiser for the YMCA.
“It is a fluke that mud volleyball has done as well as it has done,” he said. “The amount we’ve given to the YMCA is a serious amount of money.”
Praise for the YMCA comes easily. “It has good directorship and it is a great facility. They draw a lot of members. Pete Freisen and his staff do a good job; they have a large number of members for a city of this size.”
Bobby remembers the Hannibal downtown’s glory days, pre-1970, when downtown was the shopping district.
“When I was young, Dad and Orland Yates and Harry Cohn, Bill Schneider and Loren Mills, would meet for lunch at the Mark Twain Hotel. It was real fellowship. All the best businesses were downtown: JC Penney’s, 2 furniture stores, 3 men’s stores, 5 ladies ready to wear stores, and 3 or 4 shoe stores. This was a hive of activity. We had people drive their cars downtown on Friday morning” and take the bus home, so they’d have a parking space on Friday night. “If you weren’t downtown on Friday night, you were missing everything. We always stayed open until 9 o’clock on Friday.”
Bobby worked at the store on those Friday nights, while his friends worked for other downtown merchants. “We used to get together at Crystal Pool Hall. We’d shoot pool and have chili dogs.”
During the week, “Dad and all his friends” would meet for coffee at the downtown cafes each afternoon.
“Rotary met at the Mark Twain Hotel, and the Lions Club did too,” he said.
“There used to be so many professional gentlemen in town. Robert Welch, Joe’s father, was a real gentleman. Ed Coulter. Mr. Briscoe. Bill Schneider. Loren Mills. They were honest and had great judgment. They were people you could look up to.
“Businessmen don’t have those relationships today,” Bobby said.
“I had a bad hamstring in high school, and Doc (E.A.) Porter kept me playing my whole senior year,” Bobby said.
The two developed a friendship that continued until Porter died in 2008.
“One of the greatest honors I ever had was when (old) Jimmy O’Donnell called and said he had a letter for me from Doc Porter’s nurse, Myrtle,” who had recently died.
“He brought me the letter asking if I’d be a pallbearer at her funeral. I thought it was a real honor. She knew that I was a real true friend to Doc. She was a wonderful lady and really helped Doc a lot.”
Doc Porter opened his osteopathic practice in Hannibal in 1935 and continued it until he retired on Jan. 1, 1992. He took a special interest in Hannibal’s young athletes. The HHS football stadium is named in his honor.
“You don’t see many people who are charitable like Doc Porter. He really cared for other people,” Bobby said.