Keleher’s Jewelry looks back on 25 years in business

Keleher’s Jewelry is now celebrating 25 years in business in Monticello. From left are owner Tom Keleher and long-time employees Betty Schmit and Kathy Cooper. (Photo by Kim Brooks)

This photo appeared in the Sept. 7, 1994 Monticello Express. The new owners of Monticello’s jewelry store (Tom and Terri Keleher) with the outgoing owners (Alaine and Jim Nelson). Nelson’s Jewelry was a staple in downtown Monticello for 50 years. (Express file photo)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

Sept. 1, 1994. This was the date 25 years ago that Nelson’s Jewelry officially became Keleher’s Jewelry. 

The jewelry store was originally located at 114 E. First St. in downtown Monticello. Following a devastating fire in November 2012, Keleher’s was forced to find a new home. 

For the past seven years, the jewelry store has been located at 321 S. Main St. 

“We’d still be downtown if it weren’t for the fire,” recalled owner Tom Keleher. “We would have kept rolling down there, though we’d have remodeled a bit.” 

While the S. Main location offers more square footage for retail (1,500 square feet), the E. First Street building (1,200 square feet) included a full basement for storage. 

“We had more space,” said Keleher. 

Keleher and long-time employee Betty Schmit called the day of the fire… Keleher said he received a call from then-Fire Chief Mark Stoneking between 2:30/3 a.m. on Nov. 28, 2012. 

“He told me we had a little fire downtown,” said Keleher. 

With Keleher’s Jewelry located a few doors down from the origin of the fire, Keleher felt he needed to check out the scene downtown. When he arrived, Keleher attempted to enter the front door of his building and was met with a plume of smoke. He knew it was more than a “little fire” at that point. 

“It was not good,” he said. 

Schmit was alerted of an incident in their store by the alarm company, who informed her that the store was being robbed. It turns out, the alarm was going off due to the loss of power. 

“They cut the power explained Schmit. 

Both Keleher and Schmit marveled at just how fast family and friends came together to help them reopen within days of the fire. 

“They all jumped in,” said Keleher of an assembly line of people. “It was like a blur.” 

Unfortunately, the fire was in the midst of a busy holiday season. 

Keleher’s moved temporarily into 315 S. Main St. When that location sold a month later, Keleher bought their new home. 

Monticello has been home to a jewelry store for at least 50 years. Jim Nelson, Sr. managed Nelson’s Jewelry for 25 years; his son, Jim, Jr., ran it for 30 years before he retired. 

Keleher’s career in the jewelry business, owning and operating his own business in Monticello, Iowa, was all about being in the right place at the right time. 

Prior to coming to Monticello, Keleher worked at JCPenny inside the mall in Dubuque. He went from working in the shoe department to the fine jewelry department. 

“He ( Jim, Jr.) was walking through the store one day,” said Keleher fondly. “We struck up a conversation.” 

Nelson informed Keleher that he owned a jewelry store in a small town and was looking to retire some day. 

This meeting took place eight months before Nelson stepped down and Keleher took the reins. 

“I knew nothing of Monticello,” joked Keleher, who’s now been here for 25 years, raising his family. (Keleher said the only thing he knew of the community was the “purple house” on Business Highway 151 North.) 

Before taking over, however, Keleher visited Monticello on several occasions to look over the community and get a feel for the area. 

“I’d observe the store and learn the ins and outs,” he said. “I could see this was a good situation. I felt I could breathe new life into the store.” 

So the Keleher family relocated to Monticello. Keleher joked he inherited long-time, dedicated jewelry store employees Schmit and Kathy Cooper, both having been with the business now for over 40 years. 

“It was an easy transition,” recalled Keleher. “They (Schmit and Cooper) knew everybody and introduced me to so many people. We kept the train going.” 

Keleher said 25 years ago, downtown Monticello was full of life, especially on Thursday nights. 

“People were in and out (of the stores),” he said. 

Eventually, Keleher put his own spin on things with the business, bringing in giftware. As a member of the Iowa Jewelers Association, he was privy to trends that came and went throughout the years. 

“As with any business, you learn to market yourself,” he said. “A big part of the business for us was customer service and repair.” 

Twenty-five years later, Keleher’s Jewelry is still known for its top-notch customer service. 

One big change most recently has been technology. Keleher explained 3-D printers are used to make wax carvings of various pieces of jewelry versus hand carving. 

“They do it just like that,” he said of the time-saver of using a 3-D printer. 

Also, customers walk in with pictures of jewelry saved to their smartphones, asking if Keleher’s can find something close to what they want. 

“It’s hard to inventory everything because we’d have millions of items,” Keleher said of every possible ring that might be out there. 

In the jewelry business, Keleher said, it has become a feel-good industry. People buy jewelry to basically “feel good.” 

He is surprised to see adults still coming in to purchase wristwatches or have them repaired. 

“I still have the first watch my parents ever gave me,” said Keleher. “It’s a keepsake, a family tradition.” 

As with any business in a small town, Keleher said it’s also about staying current in competing with the big-box stores. 

“Every day is a new adventure. We keep rolling with it.” 

Keleher’s Jewelry maintains a strong base of customers not only locally, but in Cascade and up toward Manchester as well. It’s the customers, the people, who have kept the business going now for 25 years, and hopefully years to come. 

“I’m finding people coming in to buy engagement rings who I sold rings to their parents,” laughed Keleher. 

The business has had great community support, whether it’s the holiday season, or after a fire or robbery (which took place almost one year ago). 

“The support from the 40-mile radius has kept us in business,” thanked Keleher. “People keep coming through the door.”


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