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November 01, 2012 8:03 am

Powell’s oldest downtown store closes this weekend

Written by Tessa Schweigert

Wilkins Jewelry started 57 years ago

For more than half of Powell’s 103-year existence, Wilkins Jewelry has stood on main street. This weekend, after 57 years, the store will close.

Gerry Wilkins is the retail businessman with the longest tenure in downtown Powell, opening the shop in 1955 and continuing since.

His son, Gerry Wilkins, Jr., shared the observation of one of his classmates: “It’s kind of like the post office. It’s always been there.”

To trace the store’s roots, you have to look at the landscape surrounding Powell.

“It all leads to the mountains,” Wilkins said. “Yellowstone National Park brought us out here.”

After his service in World War II, Wilkins was a young watchmaker from Illinois who visited Yellowstone on a summer vacation. He met a jeweler from Casper, John Tripney, who offered Wilkins a job. At that time, Wilkins owned a jewelry store in Illinois. He went home, sold the store and moved to Wyoming in 1952. A few years later, Wilkins had chances to buy a jewelry store in Powell or Wheatland.

“We came to Powell, and we’re glad we did,” he said. “Powell was closer to Yellowstone National Park than Wheatland. The mountains are what brought us up here.”

And the mountains have kept Wilkins here. On Tuesday, as he prepared for his final sale, Wilkins went to Crandall, where the family has two cabins.

Other than spending more time in the mountains, Wilkins said he has no retirement plans.

“I’m where I want to be,” he said.

On Saturday, the jewelry shop will have its final sale. On Sunday, Wilkins will turn 92.

Wilkins trimmed back the store’s hours over the years, but never fully retired until now.

“I like the business, gosh, it’s like selling one of my kids — you don’t just up and quit,” Wilkins said. “It’s just like these farmers. The only reason they’re farmers is not because it’s easy work, it’s because they like the work.”

Wilkins has served as one of the Big Horn Basin’s sole jewelers in recent years.

Over the decades, Wilkins has seen changes in the jeweler’s trade since he started as a watchmaker 70 years ago.

Though watchmaking is now a lost art, “at that time, it was quite popular,” Wilkins said.

He also has seen many changes  downtown — longtime stores come and go, and new ones begin.

“It changed so gradually,” Wilkins said. “We’ve seen a lot.”

Reminiscing about stores that have since closed, Wilkins joked,  “The rest of them got too old. I stayed young at heart.”

Wilkins and his late wife, Sue, also operated a variety store business across the street from his jewelry shop. Sue died in 2001.

“I was going to move across the street and be in the Wilkins Department Store, but that didn’t work out,” he said.

Wilkins still owns the building on the east side of Bent Street, which now houses Little Luxuries. He rents his jewelry store space from Glen Holm.

Over the years, Wilkins said his jewelry business  “has been good to me, and good to my family.”

Gerry Jr. recalled visiting the jewelry store after school with his siblings, and napping under the counters.

Wilkins has four children, Sallie, Nancy, Gerry and Teri; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Each of his four children have worked in the store at one time, but Wilkins encouraged them to pursue their own dreams and their own careers.

As he closes the store where he’s spent most his life, Wilkins’ parting words to his customers were simple: “Thank you.”

“People from the whole Big Horn Basin have been my customers all these years,” he said.

Wilkins said he realized how many customers he had over the years when his retirement was recently announced.

“They kept coming in here and coming in here,” he said.

Many recognize that for the first time in decades, Powell will no longer have a jeweler on main street.

Sitting near his work bench, where tools and jewelry still rest, Wilkins said, “I’m a jack of all trades, a master of one.”

1 Comment

  • Comment Link November 01, 2012 9:43 am posted by betty Dalke

    hey gerry remember when tou came to open your shop in powell
    remember the hunting weekends with Hank Paul and Vernon

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