For Sam Fribush, the jewelry business has never been just a career, it’s been a way of life.
Born in Baltimore City, Fribush has only worked at one place — Berman’s Jewelers.
“I sell happiness,” Fribush, 70, said. “To watch the smile on most of my customers’ faces, you can’t beat it.”
After 54 years of serving customers that he said have become family, Fribush is closing the store for good on June 16.
Fribush said he started thinking about retirement in January and isn’t looking back.
“I was taking the long way to work, driving slow, and when I start doing that, the writing’s on the wall,” he said. “It was becoming a job.”
Fribush and his wife Paula have worked in the store together since 1988, with Paula as bookkeeper.
“I haven’t had a vacation in 25 years,” he said. “I’ve had enough, I’ve gotten to the end and I’m finished.”
Established initially as a pawnshop and a jewelry store, Isaac Berman opened the store’s first location on West Baltimore Street in 1910.
Fribush’s father, Paul, came on board in 1935 and after 20 years bought the jewelry side of the business in 1955 with a partner, Herman Miller.
Sam Fribush started at the store when he was 16 in 1964, helping his father after school and on weekends. He bought out Miller, joining his father as partner, in 1984 and taking over when his father died in 1994.
The shop moved to Ellicott City in 2000.
“It’s all I’ve ever done, I never worked,” he said. “This was never a job to me, I just like it.”
In the more than five decades he’s spent bringing people what called the “instant gratification” of a new piece of fine jewelry, Fribush said he’s seen much of the jewelry industry change, especially as online shopping has crept into the business.
While lifelong customers used to frequent his store, Fribush said younger customers now often buy engagement rings and watches from him, but that’s it. The rest, he said, they buy online.
The industry shift has shrunken his customer base in the last 10 years as older customers aren’t replaced at the same rate by younger ones. He declined to disclose revenues.
The number of jewelry retail stores nationwide has dwindled in the last several years; 241 jewelry retail stores closed in the first quarter of 2018, up 11 percent compared to the same period last year, according to National Jeweler, a trade publication. The Jeweler Board of Trade, an association for jewelers, estimated there were 25,667 jewelry retailers nationwide at the end of the first quarter.
Fribush said he’s kept up by sticking to one of his greatest strengths: customer service.
“If there’s something I can do to make them happy, I’ll do it, I don’t care about the money. You’ve gotta have the human touch.”
For Fribush, that’s meant doing repairs on jewelry he’s sold years ago, getting to know many of his thousands of customers by name and following his father’s biggest business advice: keep your promises. He also gives discounts to first responders, veterans, teachers and the elderly.
He said his favorite sales are engagement rings and wedding bands.
“We’ve had a few customers that got engaged right in the store, and that’s pretty exciting,” he said. “The fella will bring the young lady in, the ring’s already made, he’ll pick it up and put it right on her finger. So the carrying on in the store is very nice.”
He upholds his business relationships by a handshake and a Hebrew saying: “Mazal u' Bracha,” meaning “with fortune and blessings.” It’s a traditional phrase among diamond merchants around the world, signaling the close of a deal.
Susan Levy, one of Fribush’s six staff members, said she’ll miss Sam and Paula and the happiness. Levy has been at the store for two years and said she does plan to stay in the jewelry business after Berman’s closes.
“It’s a warm feeling store,” she said. “The owners are so good and sweet to us, they treat us like family.”
While it’s bittersweet to close the store, Fribush has no regrets. His first plan for his free time is to finally check out the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore; he’s passed it “800 times” and never gone in.
Next, Paula said she wants to go to Florida with her husband and check off another major life event for Sam— flying on a plane for the first time.
Now with only a few days left in the store, Fribush said it’s starting to sink in.
“Well I’m a little sad, because most of my customers are like my family and that’s what I’m going to miss, my interaction with people,” he said. “It’s starting to [feel real] today because it’s less than two weeks and there’ll be no more Berman’s.”