December 03, 2002 11:00 pm
Set to diversify: Joseph Mack is in the process of divesting the store of its inventory, which has run between $750,000 and $900,000 at its height. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
Set to diversify: Joseph Mack is in the process of divesting the store of its inventory, which has run between $750,000 and $900,000 at its height. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

oseph Mack can remember when, at an early age, he and some of his 12 siblings gathered in their parents' jewelry store and folded boxes for the jewelry, made bows and stuffed statements into envelopes.

"One of the beauties of the jewelry business was that the whole family could share the workload," he said one day last week as he continued to wind down the operation at the La Grande store.

"It was easy for the children to come around and help in some form," he said.

Joseph got paid 25 cents an hour, recalling that if you could stick with a chore for a good while you could accumulate enough of the $2 needed to buy .22-caliber shells so you could shoot on the family's 160-acre ranch in the Baker Valley. The ranch had 100 head of registered Angus cattle and there were plenty of chores.

When he was in the seventh grade, Joseph would go into the Baker City store to engrave ID bracelets, which were popular at the time.

One of 13 children of Fabian and Irene Mack, all of whom are in the jewelry business at various locations in the country, Joseph Mack and other family members who operate as a corporation decided to close Mack & Sons Fine Jewelry on Adams Avenue.

He is busy with a going-out-of-business sale and has six "seriously interested" prospects for purchase of the building. It's for sale for $239,000. It has 3,000 square-feet on the main floor; 2,500 on the second, which is mostly office space; and a full, 3,000-square-foot basement. Built at the turn of the century, it has been extensively remodeled, he said. Once a bank, it has three large walk-in vaults. It was a clothing store before the jewelry family moved in in 1995, with Joseph Mack as the manager. Before that he had managed the I.J. Gems store in La Grande.

"There's a lot of building here at a very reasonable price. It would be a delicious property for anyone."

The first F.S. Mack & Sons Jewelers opened in Baker City in 1949. It closed in about 1998. An Ontario store was closed a few years ago. A sister, Jacqueline L. Mack, still operates a Hermiston store under the I.J. Gems name. It will be the only remaining store of six once operated by family members.

Their mother, Irene Mack, founded the I.J. Gems stores.

"I was 22 when she died and that really thrust me and my younger brothers into adult roles quickly," Joseph Mack said.

"This marks the end of an era after 53 years of operation in this part of Eastern Oregon," although other family members still operate stores in such places as Oak Harbor, Wash.; San Antonio, Texas; Montrose, Calif.; and St. George, Utah; as well as Hermiston.

"We go to industry trade shows and have family reunions," Joseph said.

Their father, 80, is "still in very good health although he just entered the University of California Medical Center to have a small cancer removed," Joseph said. Fabian lives in Ontario, having retired from the jewelry business in 1986.

Of German stock, his family came to North Dakota and settled on a big farm, which is still in the family of a relative.

"Dad attended a watch-making school in Denver, then returned to Minot, N.D., and worked for a jeweler for two years. Then he borrowed $5,000 and with a little other money he had saved, he opened the Baker City store in 1949," Joseph said.

Now, "it's not easy for our father to see the (local) store closing, and I know we will miss the friendly, loyal customers."

Joseph Mack said he has no timeline for getting out but said "the best sales are now," this close to Christmas, as he divests the store of its inventory, which has run between $750,000 and $900,000 at its height. Sales now offer up to 60 percent off.

Joseph Mack said he has had a desire to diversify his business interests, get out of the six-day-a-week routine and devote more time to his family, wife Sally and children, Alex, 7, and Jacob, 4.

"My wife has been with me in the store the last couple of years, but we have been looking to get out of the retail business."

Three other people will be out of a job, but Joseph said they would have no trouble finding other work. One already has.

As for himself, Mack said 25 years in retail is enough. He is a partner with Dale Mammen in the ownership of the La Grande RV Resort, a 66-space full-service park off Bearco Loop. It was built on the 10-acre site in 1994 and the last couple of years it has been at peak capacity during the tourist season, Mack said.

"At 44, I still have a lot of energy. I'd just like to pursue another occupation," he said.