- Associated Press - Monday, December 14, 2015

WILLIAMSTON, S.C. (AP) - Americans cherished heirloom timepieces, keeping them in the family for generations, when M.C. Belk opened Belk’s Jewelers on Williamston’s Main Street in 1958.

But today, the watch-repair industry seems out of place in what second-generation watchmaker Danny Belk calls “a disposable society.”

“These days, people just throw away the watch when it needs a new battery,” Belk said on Dec. 2.

That cultural shift, hastened by the arrival of time-bearing mobile phones, has thinned the ranks of watchmakers in the Upstate.

Williamston will lose its only one late this month, when Belk retires after 41 years on the job. He plans to close the store, and a piece of Williamston history, on Dec. 31.

“After 57 years, it’s really like a death in the family,” Belk said.

“Leaving this place will be hard to do,” he said, “especially since it has been in this same location all these years.”

The store is the town’s oldest under a continuous name. Only the Ace Hardware store, just across the plaza parking lot, has been in business longer, Belk said.

The change is an emotion-stirring for Belk as well as wife Vickie and daughters Kayla and Danetha, who provide Christmas-season help in the family operation.

“When I was in the fourth grade, my dream was to run this store someday,” said Kayla Belk Hamilton, a helper at the store for 18 of her 30 years.

Closing, Belk said, is “something I need to do, because (staying open) affects the whole family.”

Only eight years old when his father opened the store, Belk remembers cleaning the glass counters when it was difficult for him to reach the top of them. He fell in love with the business as a teenager and worked there often as a student at Palmetto High.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army, he enrolled in watchmaking at Orangeburg Tech, then came home in 1974 to work alongside his father.

He became sole proprietor when M.C. (actual name Murley Columbus) retired in ‘82.

Belk expanded the store in 1991, when Bill Black closed his barber shop next door. Little else has changed in the last half-century.

Longtime customers like Paul Williams like it that way.

“I’ve always dealt here. My daddy dealt here and my grand-daddy dealt there,” the 78-year-old Williams said recently as he handed Belk an old watch that needed a new battery.

“Folks who fix watches and clocks are hard to come by, and he’s been a good ‘un,” Williams said. “We’ll be hurting when he closes.”

Belk’s penchant for keeping old things in running condition is on daily display at the store, which doesn’t use a website or a computer. Calls are taken on a black rotary phone that was originally in use at the Geer Hotel in Belton.

“I don’t know exactly where the hotel was,” Belk said recently, “but I know the phone has to be old. It still works better than the cell phones.”

Belk tried semi-retiring once. In 2012, he attempted to work part-time, “but it just didn’t work. I felt like it was better to be here every day or get out.”

Belk is among the region’s last watchmakers operating on modestly-priced timepieces, a fact that brings him business from as far away as Liberty and Newberry.

But Belk, who once greeted 6-8 watches a day for repair, now gets about four a week.

“There aren’t many doing it anymore - it’s just not profitable,” he said of the trade. “That’s the reason I need to get out.

“It’ll be sad, closing that door for the last time on New Year’s Eve,” Belk said. “But it’s something I need to do.”


Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, https://www.andersonsc.com

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