ST. PETERSBURG — From the corner chair of his jewelry shop, the proprietor watches as workers and shoppers hustle through the heart of downtown.
He has seen downtown rise and fall several times since he opened in 1946. Restaurants have come and gone. Shops opened and closed. Boarding houses gave way to residential towers.
But now, after 66 years, Jerome Gilbert is ready to give up his front row seat.
He will close Gilbert Jewelers, one of the city's oldest retail stores, on Dec. 31.
"It's just time to go," said Gilbert, 89. "I've had enough."
• • •
Gilbert didn't plan on opening a jewelry business. He wanted to work outdoors.
The 1940 St. Petersburg High graduate attended the University of Florida for two years and majored in forestry. Then World War II called.
He joined the Coast Guard in 1942 and ran convoy and weather patrols between Greenland and Iceland. After leaving the military, Gilbert spent two summers in the jewelry business with his father-in-law in Atlantic City.
He and his wife, his high school sweetheart, opened their own store at First Avenue N and Fourth Street in 1946 with a $1,000 loan from Gilbert's parents.
In those days, shoppers ventured to downtown St. Petersburg for everything except groceries.
Dresses, suits and shoes came from department stores, which drove customers to Gilbert's store. Snowbirds and tourists filled boarding houses and hotels each winter, and many returned yearly to buy jewelry.
Gilbert and his wife built their own display cases. Gilbert studied gemology in his free time. Merchandise was bought on credit.
After selling inexpensive jewelry for five years, Gilbert found his niche: estate and antique jewelry. Banks and families asked him to sell expensive heirlooms. He once sold a diamond ring for $20,000, his most expensive sale.
Hawking unique gems and fine jewels enabled Gilbert to stay in businesses while hundreds of mom-and-pop shops disappeared. He gleaned knowledge from buying jewels in France, Italy and Hong Kong.
"I know every piece in here by heart, where it came from and the workmanship put into it," he said of the more than 2,000 pieces in the store.
Downtown changed, he said. Selling jewelry didn't.
• • •
As other businesses moved to malls and the suburbs, Gilbert never considered leaving the heart of the city.
"I can see out across the street and watch all the traffic go by," he said, laughing. "It's a good place for me to relax."
Window shopping has driven sales from business workers, residents and tourists. Several generations of families have pulled open the glass doors at the store. He caters to young and old.
Gilbert attributes his longevity to taking care of customers, quality merchandise and fair pricing. He pointed out a difference between his generation and newer business owners.
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"We took care of our customers and looked forward to greeting them," Gilbert says. "That was more important at that time than today."
The store location, Gilbert says, is one of the best business corners in the city.
But he doesn't like the hordes of homeless people congregating on the corner or across the street in Williams Park. He fears they've kept elderly customers away.
• • •
Asked who was the biggest celebrity to buy jewelry, Gilbert named former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.
The former mayor laughed when told about his celebrity status. Greco visited the store last week to look for rings for his wife.
Greco called the store closing the "end of an era" in downtown St. Petersburg and says Gilbert comes from a generation of business owners like no others.
"Those kinds of folks are just a different breed," he said. "He's a fine man. There's not going to be any more people in business like him."
Gilbert was among a group of eight to 10 downtown business owners who for decades met for lunch daily to talk sports, business and gossip from 12:45 to 1:30 p.m. Now Gilbert is the last of those shop owners who emerged from the Greatest Generation.
"All of the businessmen I was associated with are gone," Gilbert said. "I'm the last one."
• • •
The small store became a playroom and then a career for Gilbert's sons.
Mark Gilbert retired a few years ago. Ronald Gilbert, whose daughter now works in the store, died in 2010.
Kim Gilbert said it will be hard to close the store because of the memories of her father sitting at the front of the shop with her grandfather.
"My grandpa is a wonderful man who built this company," she said, "but it was definitely a family that kept it going so long."
With his wife of 66 years still active in charities, Gilbert plans to stay out of her way in retirement.
She didn't ask him to close, he said, but it's time to move on.
Gilbert, who lives in the Pasadena Lake area of the city, doesn't own the store building or control what will go there next.
After a pause, he said it will not be hard to shut the lights off that last time.
While Gilbert, who turns 90 next month, tackles the next chapter in his life, he expects to stay busy during the hours he has worked for decades, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"I'll watch television and go to ball games," he said, chuckling. "I'll take it one day at a time. I am getting myself adjusted to the fact that it is going to happen."
In the end, one thing is certain: He'll still eat lunch at 12:45 p.m.
"It's a habit," he said. "I go out."