Faith and family keep this pair on course
by Leon J. Thompson
After Drinkwater’s, St. Albans’ longtime jewelry store, closed, Jeff and Vickie Eaton opened Eaton’s Fine Jewelry on a wing and a prayer.
Eaton’s Fine Jewelry normally closes on Sundays and Mondays. However, during the holidays the store is open the last two Mondays before Christmas.
Vicki and Jeff Eaton’s employees were unsure what to expect on one of those two Mondays last month. Main Street in St. Albans was not especially bustling — could be busy, could be slow — but a collective, restorative breath eluded all of them until closing time. They were slammed.
“That’s what we like to see,” Jeff says during a quick midday break, as he and Vicki slip into her office, where they make some time to discuss what matters most to them: faith and family, in that order.
“To us, our faith is our foundation, and we’re able to give more to our family with our faith,” Vicki explains, adding that it’s a foundation they’ve instilled in their children. The Eatons’ blended family consists of three grown children and four grandchildren. Their youngest, Elijah, Jeff’s only child from a previous marriage, is studying aerospace engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Vicki and Jeff are in their early 50s. They live in Highgate Springs.
When the Eatons opened their store in 2006, they intended to offer service and stock that would be affordable and sensible to Franklin County’s working middle class. The public responded with positive patronage, so they reacted by “doing everything to give back,” Jeff says.
“Giving back” includes support of nonprofits such as Laurie’s House, Martha’s Kitchen, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, United Way, and Teen Challenge. Last September, Vicki and Jeff joined another downtown merchant and unabashedly paraded along Main Street in Civil War garb during ceremonies for the 150th anniversary of the St. Albans Raid.
This is all part of living up to the store motto, “Come as a customer, leave as a friend,” which Vicki says came to her as an answer to a prayer, just before they opened Eaton’s. The Eatons use the slogan in most of their print and Web ads, as well as the popular radio spots Vicki has scripted and delivered with her own Amy Poehler-esque timbre for about seven years. Vicki’s voice and those ads have become recognizable to many, such as the man in the Burlington checkout line who once stood behind her and muttered, “Happy wife. Happy life.” Vicki knew it from one of her radio commercials.
“I turned around,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘Yes. You. You’re the one that keeps getting me into a lot of trouble with my wife at home.’”
Vicki targets men in her commercials, speaking directly to them, because they account for 65 to 70 percent of business at Eaton’s, although women dominate the store’s active Facebook page.
The Eatons are reputed for modestly refusing to discuss store sales, but in 2013, with the closing of Precious Things in Enosburg Falls, Eaton’s became the only “fine jewelry” store in Franklin, Grand Isle, and Lamoille counties. According to industry standards, a fine jewelry store is one that carries such items as pearls, precious gems, and diamonds.
“To me, though, whatever makes a woman feel beautiful is fine jewelry,” says Vicki, who acknowledges a lifelong penchant for style and appearance — as long as it’s for comfort and happiness. “What you present is what you get back,” she says.
The Eatons have seen an uptick in customer growth since Precious Things closed, but they do not take it for granted. They applaud their staff often in conversation and take them to Northeast jewelry shows, when possible, to keep up on the latest in their trend-driven industry.
“We couldn’t do a lot of this without this staff,” Jeff says.
Sally Lawyer, a longtime St. Albans kindergarten teacher, remembers buying her class ring from the store in the late 1960s, back when Drinkwater’s was there. Charles “Chuck” Drinkwater opened the jewelry store in its current location — an 1800s-era, red brick building the Eatons now own — in 1950.
Lawyer is now an Eaton’s regular. She enjoys seeing Murphy, the Eatons’ dog, who frequents the store and keeps Jeff company at his jeweler’s bench. Lawyer describes the Eatons and their staff as personable, knowledgeable, and in touch with their customers’ individual wants and needs.
“When the Drinkwaters announced they were going to close, I did not think that someone could come in and build the reputation that they did,” Lawyer says. “Now, I consider Eaton’s an elite mom-and-pop store. Jeff and Vicki are great people.”
The couple seriously weighed a name change when they decided to open a jewelry store in the Drinkwater’s space. Jeff thought keeping the Drinkwater name would give them a better credit rating. Vicki sought divine consultation.
“The Lord kept telling me this is ours, so we needed to keep our name,” she says. “And it worked.”
A Fairfield native and 1979 graduate of Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vicki married right into the military after high school, taking her to Porcia, Italy, as well as Connecticut, New Mexico, and Maine. She started working after her divorce in the early 1990s and, as a single mom, held three retail positions for 13 years — all in management — plus handling a Mary Kay career.
“I think that’s just part of my personality,” Vicki says. “I think I jumped right into management every time just by being myself. I’ve always been confident in that retail realm.”
Jeff grew up in Bovina Center, N.Y., and worked on farms. His late father, Charles, was a dairy farmer, but a physical health change caused him to switch to artificial insemination of cows for a company called Eastern Artificial Insemination Cooperative (known as Eastern AI), near Ithaca. In 1980, when Jeff graduated from Morrisville Agriculture and Technology College near Syracuse with a two-year agriculture business degree, Charles said, “Eastern is hiring. And, hey, if you don’t like it, it always looks good on a resume.”
Jeff lived in St. Albans while covering northern Vermont for Eastern. He was also a regular Drinkwater’s customer and came to know Chuck’s son, Dale, who was then running the store. In 1993, Dale stopped in Jeff’s driveway to ask how Jeff fit both a car and horse into a two-car garage, and by the end of the conversation, Jeff was working at Drinkwater’s.
“I wasn’t hired for what I knew about jewelry at the time, which was nothing,” Jeff says. “I was told I was hired for who I was — a good salesman; friendly, outgoing.”
Vicki worked at Drinkwater’s for six months in 1996 and she and Jeff became friends. They did not connect again for four years. They wed in 2004 and were married for 18 months when the Drinkwaters announced their closing.
The Eatons wanted the store but had no money, so they took $300 and their faith and opened Eaton’s, offering watch batteries and jewelry repairs as a humble start. For a month, they had empty showcases. Then, vendors offered them up-front stock based on the reputation Jeff had built in the industry while with Drinkwater’s.
“This is one of the few fields where that can happen,” Jeff says.
Eaton’s has a ranking of 1 — the best in the industry, which rates on a scale of 1 to 4 — from the Jewelers Board of Trade. In Eaton’s first year of business, the Independent Jewelers Organization asked the store to join its invitation-only group — a rarity in their line of work, according to Vicki.
“That’s really been an asset to us,” she says.
In 2011, the Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce named Eaton’s Fine Jewelry its Small Business of the Year — for Vicki, the “icing on the cake. This business is fun. We enjoy it. So that completed everything for me.”
Dave Southwick, the chamber’s executive director, says the Eatons “exemplify that rare combination of know-how, charm, and commitment” that is essential to running a small, local business.
“The Chamber looks carefully before we give out our awards,” Southwick says. “We didn’t have to look far to find Jeff and Vicki.”
Jeff says he is too young to discuss a retirement plan, although he and Vicki, who is semi-retired from the store, would like to move elsewhere when their grandchildren are teens.
“But sitting here now,” Jeff wonders, “who knows?”
For now, their business focus is clear: Keep turning customers into friends.
“We don’t want everyone to feel like they have to come in and spend thousands of dollars,” Vicki says. “It’s not about that. I love that about us — that we don’t focus on that.” •