Cornwell Jewelers has been open for business in uptown Athens since 1832, making it possibly the second oldest jeweler in the country, and by far the oldest business in Athens city or county.
That’s according to business owner Kris Cornwell, who confirmed Tuesday that the store – located at 77 N. Court St. in Athens – is now set to close permanently sometime in the near future, once all the store’s wares are sold.
For perspective, 1832 happens to be the year when President Andrew Jackson won re-election, and Charles Darwin took his famous HMS Beagle voyage.
As a “people pleaser,” Cornwell, 48, said it was a difficult decision to make. But, she’s been operating the business for 25 years, and said she finally wants to take some time for herself, especially with three of her and her husband’s five daughters set to leave Athens over the next few months.
“My two girls I know have no interest in continuing the legacy,” Cornwell said, referring to her biological daughters. “And when you realize that the family legacy is why you’re doing something, and that you don’t think the family legacy is going to continue beyond me, I really had to evaluate my life and where things are.”
Cornwell said she loves the business, its four full-time staff and its customers, and said it’s been successful under her tenure, but the world is changing, as is the nature of Court Street.
“The retail world of Court Street from when I was growing up has very much changed,” Cornwell said. “…I always have to be thinking OK, what’s five years look like, what’s 10 years look like, where’s the store, where’s the future of the store going to be. Part of that decision is, I don’t know in terms of success of the jewelry store, if it would have made sense to keep it here (on Court Street).”
Cornwell Jewelers moved to its current location in 2002 under Cornwell’s stewardship. Before that, the business was located at its historic location at 10 S. Court St. (where Big Mamma’s Burritos is located). Prior to that, a second location was opened in 1966 by Kris’ father, local businessperson Les Cornwell, at the corner of Union and Court streets. That store merged with the original location in 1987.
Kris Cornwell said that she wasn’t sold on leading the business when her mother, Connie Cornwell, convinced her to it over in 1994. After six months, though, Kris said she was hooked.
“It was a challenge to see what I could do to change the business and make the business better,” she said. “I feel really proud of what I accomplished, and I’m just happy I got an opportunity to do it.”
Kris added that she made sure she spoke with the whole family before she made the decision to close the business, and nobody was interested in buying it and continuing to run it. Her brother, David, and her sister, Anne, own their own businesses, and Les (who is in his late 70s) still has his property rental company, Cornwell Properties.
“My father said, ‘well you’ve done it a lot longer than I did, so I can’t really say much,’” Kris said.
Kris said that she and her husband, Bo Marrs (who is a teacher at Athens Middle School), will be staying in Athens after the store closes, and she said she’s not sure about the next step in her professional life. It’s also not clear yet what will happen to the building; if anyone is interested in exploring buying or leasing it, they can call Kris at 740-594 4653.
Kris said one of her favorite memories of the business is when the family bought a 1967 Cadillac in 2007 and painted it purple, and put it out front of Cornwell Jewelers as an eye-catching way to bring in customers.
“We had a coming-out party for the car,” she recalled, laughing. “We had a big tent, we invited our customers, had a DJ, and brought the purple car out and did an unveiling. That was just fun… It was a reason to have a party.”
Kris thanked the business’ many loyal customers for their support of the business over the years.
“I just feel very fortunate that I’ve gotten to do it for 25 years, and that the store has been a part of the Athens community for as long as it has,” she said.
As suggested above, Kris said she doesn’t have a set closing date for the store. There’s currently a big closing-out sale going on, as much as 60 percent off on some products, so Kris encouraged people to come in and take a look at the wares before they’re all gone.
Once Cornwell Jewelers is gone, at least two dedicated jewelry stores will continue to operate in Athens, including Keith Chapman Jeweler at 8 S. Court St. and chain business Kay Jewelers on 857 E. State St., which opened a little more than a year ago.
In general, brick-and-mortar jewelry stores across the country have seen a significant downturn in customers and sales in recent years, as demographics change across the country and online sales take a bigger bite out of the market.