Roger and Vicki Hill are ready to retire - but that doesn't mean they won't be sad to leave behind Southern Wholesale Jewelers after 31 years in business on Highway 118 (Highway 78) in Jasper.
The same can be said of the customers.
"I've had them come in crying," said Vicki Hill, the co-owner with her husband, Roger. "They are saying, 'We don't know what we are going to do. We trust y'all.'" Roger Hill said one customer who comes only each Christmas for the past 20 years came back Saturday, saying the same thing.
The Hills are holding a liquidation sale through December and maybe into January, noting they still have a lot to sell. When the merchandise has dwindled, the couple will negotiate for someone to buy the business. The same jeweler who has repaired jewelry and served the couple for 28 years, Johnny Renacker, is also expected to cut back his work schedule.
Advertising to announce the sale started a week ago.
Roger Hill, 73, was originally from Jasper, while Vicki Hill came from Birmingham; they married in 1970. His father was Buck Hill, who had Hill's Sales Co. in Jasper, while his brother once owned the NAPA dealership nearby the jewelry store on Highway 118.
The Hills started the business at the far end of the neighboring strip mall in September 1988. "We rented half of the building from Diane's Formal Affair. Vicki and I started it, and Chad (a son) was in high school," Roger Hill said. "We started it on borrowed money" from the bank. Friends helped them buy the first inventory.
"I had no idea. I was in the coal mining business," he said, noting he had a coal brokerage company for eight years until the business began. "I had no idea about diamonds or anything at all. Vicki had done it for two or three years. We had a little showing at the house with friends and they brought some stuff down and we sold quite a bit. I said, 'This will probably work,' so that's how it started."
They started with five jewelry cases, gold chains, a few diamond solitaire rings, some cluster rings, she said. With each sale, they would buy again the next day, sometimes buying diamonds from friends.
"The main thing was we gave good prices," she said. "We did not jack people up. We had to make enough to keep the store open and keep buying. One thing the guy who helped us said is, 'Don't ever get greedy.' So that's what we based this on for 31 years. We give them a good price, the best we can give and same thing on repair work. People come from all around because our repair work is reasonable."
Roger Hill also recalled the gold boom, when it was somewhat more inexpensive. "We had several cases full of gold," he said.
When Chad Hill joined the business, the store started selling more engagement rings and more diamonds. "That was sort of our forte for a long, long time," Roger Hill said. "We were probably one of the biggest diamond dealers in North Alabama at one time." His son was also on the road doing wholesale business for six years, while the store was physically importing jewelry, helping sales.
In 2004, the business constructed its current free standing location, going from 1,500 square feet to 3,200 square feet. The presence and engagement ring sales were increased, Chad Hill said, "The growth through engagement rings was astonishing."
"We've had people getting engaged in the store," Roger Hill said, with couples heading to the courthouse that day. Vicki Hill recalls men getting on their knees while the sale was being made.
"We've got the best customers in the world," Roger Hill said.
Vicki Hill said, "I have customers from all over who just call me every year and say, 'What are you going to pick out for me this year?' They just trust me that I'm going to give them a good price on it and give them something they like. We do a lot of shipping out of state."
On his parents' success, Chad Hill explained, "More than anything, I think they treated their customers the way they wanted to be treated if they went in somewhere," at all stages of the sale.
"To me, the coolest thing through this whole sale has been to see these customers who have been customers through 30 years coming back," he said. "They bought their engagement ring and their children got engagement rings, and they got anniversary presents. It's been really neat to see that."
Roger Hill noted that many younger customers don't understand how diamonds are based on the "four C's" - caret weight, clarity, color and the cut - and that changes in any of those affect the pricing. Although it takes time, he said the staff makes sure younger customers are educated in those points.
Chad Hill said it is tougher to be an independent jewelry store, explaining the internet gives people a false sense of knowledge, when they need to know much more. However, even with the internet, sales have continued to be well.
The toughest part has been the long hours, about 10 hours a day and six days a week, with only a few holidays.
"The reason they are retiring is not because of slipping sales, but it is because they want to enjoy life," Chad Hill said. Vicki Hill said she loves animals and riding horses, and she wants to be with their six grandchildren and at their activities. Roger Hill said he will likely do more hunting and fishing, and have some more time on the tractor.
At the same time, Vicki Hill almost feels guilty leaving, after all the responses from customers. "I feel bad, because they depend on me," she said.
"Really," Roger Hill said, "it's not like having a job. It's like your friends coming in every day to see you. Our customers are the best customers in the world. This is sort of like a death in the family. It's happy and its sad."
Chad Hill, who is one of three sons and once worked at the store, has come back temporarily to help with the sale. Brandon Hill and his wife, Addie, live in Auburn, while Trent Hill and his wife, Leah, live in Birmingham. (Chad Hill is married to Brandy Hill.)
Anyone who wants more information may see the store's website or Facebook page. The phone number is 205-221-2074, and the address is 850 Highway 78.