Over 40 years in the business

 A Valley Jewel 
Brian Smith celebrates 40 years in the jewelry business at North Country Fair.

An eye for beauty — and community. That’s what longtime local jeweler Brian Smith, 62, of North Country Fair Jewelers, brings to his craft, as well as to the valley. He says time has raced past in the blink of that jeweler’s eye, as it has for all of his peace-loving once “hippiefied” generation. “We opened for business in May 1969, 40 years ago, it’s hard to believe,” said Smith as he prepared for the shop’s 40th anniversary celebration on June 20. “We opened less than a week, then we closed for a week not to put up a sign saying ‘gone fishing,’ but to go to Woodstock. That sort of set the tone.”

Mix Metal PendantSmith remembers bringing his bent-wire “Peace” symbol jewelry to the Woodstock festival, thinking he would sell them. True to his generous nature, Smith never sold one there — he gave them all away. It was the spirit of his generation — and over the years, Smith has brought that same approach to local community causes, always giving back for whatever fund-raising auction that comes his way.

To Smith, who has experienced his own share of family tragedy and health challenges over the years, it’s part of being in a community. “I grew up in nearby Lovell, and when I came here, after college [at the University of Maine], I was always welcomed here, long hair and beard and all. You remember, this was 1969, and there was a lot going on, but it was always about whether you worked hard, and whether you were a good person,” said Smith in his office, which looks out to the Moats to the west.

He says just as he was made to feel at home, he tries to do the same with visitors to his shop, whether they reside here locally or not. “I always call people who come from away as ‘out-of-town locals,’ because like us, they are very appreciative of the valley. I love to live here, I love the people, and I love what I do, and I think that’s part of the secret — having a passion for what we do, and where we live,” said Smith. It may all sound like 1969 peacenik talk to some, but Smith has embodied it throughout his life — and has built a loyal following among friends and customers alike, who more often than not are one in the same. “Back when we started in 1969, things were quieter here in the valley — then the outlets came in the 1980s, and that changed things a lot, but I think the thing that hasn’t changed is there is that love for the valley, of going tubing, or hiking, or skiing. It’s just that it’s now a little harder crossing the street because there are a few more cars driving by,” said Smith.

Smith started his business with two other artisans after college in a no-longer-standing open-air rummage store on Route 16A in Intervale. He moved after a few months, with the winter coming, to what is now the Crepes Ooh-La-La site, renting from the late Bob Goldberg, whom he said accepted his then hippie-like appearance immediately (as long as he could pay his rent, which he did). Then, after 32 years at that site, he moved to the former Hamel Real Estate and former Mount Washington Observatory building, which he has occupied for eight years. Told that, like Tom Dean, who in addition to being a good musician is also a good businessman, Smith laughed and said, “Well, that may be true. But if you had told me 40 years ago that I would be a businessman, I probably would have turned and run away!” As for the community giving aspect of his nature, Smith shrugs and says, “Giving back is a very natural thing to do. It’s the flow of a community, and this particular community is alive with that energy flow. Many communities are like that — i just happen to care about this one, and like other people here, I do what I can do.” And that, perhaps, is the charm behind Smith’s story. He is an artisan and a businessman who has succeeded for a variety of reasons. Foremost, he says, is trust. It don’t come easy, as Ringo Starr sang in the song of the same name, but it’s what Smith has built up in his relationships with customers over the past four decades of doing business in North Conway. “I think the thing that sets us apart is that we spend a lot of time listening. We’re all good listeners here – we listen to what our customers want. That takes more time, but it has worked well for us, and it’s what our customers appreciate. We have built relationships over the years by taking the time to listen,” he said.

emily-smith-mossmanWith the economy now in a downturn, Smith says he and his staff of five (daughters Jennifer Julian, Emily Smith-Mossman and Katie Smith; girlfriend Lenore Allen and part-timer Amelia Preece) have not seen a rush of people selling heirlooms and the like. They have seen an upswing in those investing in gold coins. “When we started, gold was selling for about $65 an ounce. Now it’s just below $1,000 an ounce,” said Smith. He said and his employees counsel customers not to part with those treasured family items — but they are happy to help them with items of little personal value with which they wish to part. “We try and discourage people from parting with items with which they are emotionally involved. But,” said Smith, “if they have broken or old items that are of no meaning to them, it is a great time to sell. A lot of our customers are bringing in gold pieces which are selling for two or three times what they were selling for less than two years ago.” In those instances, Smith says they can either repair the items and resell it, or melt it down and re-use it in other pieces — or trade it for other gold pieces.

Surprisingly, Smith says the shop in a downturn is seeing more selective buying on the part of customers. They may buy less, but what they buy is often more expensive. “In times like these, you realize how important family is, and the real things become more important,” said Smith. “That is reflected in a lot of the things that we are selling — it’s not just about getting a Christmas present because you have to; it’s about finding that special piece of jewelry for that special person in your life.” In the span of the shop’s existence, Smith says he has worked with an amazing array of artisans, 32 or so is his guess, all of whom have shared his passion for fine workmanship. (Chuck Henderson, for example, for a time shared a corner of the old shop next to Badger Realty, crafting his early backpacks and Chuck Roast gaitors while still in college.) For a time, he had a shop at the former artisan’s village at the base of Attitash in summer in the late 1970s, and he partnered in the late 1990s and early 2000s with Tim Talbot and Lynn MacDonald in Valley Jewelers, a shop in Conway. But now, he says he is content to be working as a family business at his one valley location, working side- by-side with his three daughters. “They are all incredibly talented,” said Smith, noting that daughter Emily was mentored by Tim Talbot, who studied at the Bennett School for Jewelry. “He was formally trained, so she studied under Tim, and then I showed her how to do the ‘impossible’ jobs, the things not written in books. She is very creative and her works should really be in a museum!” Jen is a favorite with customers with her free spiritedness, and Katie is soon to go back and obtain her master’s in English. As for the challenges of a family business, Smith laughs and says, “Working with my daughters? It’s wonderful. I have learned over the years to just stand back and move out of the way.”

Looking ahead, Smith doesn’t plan to alter anything too drastically. He’ll continue to do engravings and repairs, and deal in diamonds, gold and silver coins, and custom, handmade, antique and estate jewelry, same as always, but with a greater presence as was noted on the Internet. In other words, why mess with success? “We have found the role of the traditional jeweler, the old-fashioned model where the jeweler worked in his studio, is the most comfortable for us to work with and it seemed to bring the most acceptance from people,” said Smith, adding reflectively, “But I think what it really comes down to is heart.” Spoken like a true peacenick. And, during a time when the Obama administration is extend