Kingoff’s celebrates rare gem of a milestone at 100 years
Kingoff's Jewelry is celebrating 100 years of business in Wilmington this year. The locally owned store is one of a few business to pass the century milestone. Kingoff's opened in 1919 in downtown Wilmington, selling jewelry and fine household goods and gifts. It moved to the present-day location at Hanover Center in 2009.
From robbery heists to civil rights, Kingoff’s Jewelers has seen it all in Wilmington.
Over a century, the Kingoff family says Wilmington has actually changed a whole lot more than their jewelry store.
What started as an immigrant-owned shop has evolved into a three-generation legacy as one of the community’s cornerstone businesses.
Today, located in Hanover Center at 3501 Oleander Dr., memory cases house some of the shop’s 100-year history, from one of the earliest cash registers to pre-depression era ring boxes. There are photos, jewelry scales, a pencil sharpener and a pocket-sized jewelers guide book to sizing and measurements. A Morning Star advertisement from 1935 promised a triple diamond ring on sale for $19.17. It also advertised a waffle maker, as the jewelry shop used to sell fine gifts, china, crystal and small appliances brides would register for before their wedding date.
“Engagement rings are still the biggest seller,” said Michael Kingoff, the third Kingoff to run the store.
A legendary history
At 11 years old, Ben Kingoff’s mother put him on a boat to America after five of his 11 siblings died of starvation when supplies were cut to Jewish agricultural communities in Russia. After finding success in New York City, Ben recruited his brothers to join him, and they opened Kingoff’s Jewelry stores in the Carolinas.
While they didn’t operate as a chain, but as individual stores run by family members, at one time there were more than 30 Kingoff’s stores in the south. In 1919, he opened a Wilmington location at the corner of Front and Chestnut Streets. A few years later it moved to 10 N. Front, where the store remained for 90 years.
His son, William Kingoff, started at the store in the 1940s, and his legacy is equally that of community advocate and jeweler. William and his wife, Janice, who still works in the store today, were part of a small contingent that encouraged restaurants in Wilmington to start integrating during the Civil Rights era. The pair employed Charles King, one of the first African-Americans to work side-by-side with white employees in a retail business in Wilmington.
“His stance made him unpopular with people and there were people who would not shop with us,” Michael said. He championed downtown to begin revitalization efforts as part of D.A.R.E, or what has now become Wilmington Downtown Inc. He was famously quoted in the StarNews for saying that, “A city without a downtown is a city without a heart.”
He would know, as Ben Kingoff’s purchase of an antique clock placed outside the downtown store became part of Wilmington’s downtown “heart.”
The clock was moved from a Baltimore shipyard 80 years ago and is more than 100 years old. In 2007, it was destroyed by a truck driver who carelessly backed over it, smashing its antique milk glass all over the sidewalk. The StarNews reported that day in December 2007 that locals drove by, some misty-eyed, to see the heritage lost. It was eventually repaired and now stands outside the Hanover Center location.
Surviving over time
Over the years, Michael said he has had his scares about the future of retail, jewelry retail in particular, but something his father said will always stick with him.
“He told me -- and I’ll never forget this -- that as long as romance exists, you won’t be out of a job,” he said.
Another mantra Michael holds close is that if his grandfather could keep a jewelry store going during the depression, then surely he could keep one going during modern-day economic downturns.
“Wilmington is not what it used to be, so that fact they have continued shows Kingoff’s has evolved and is sync with the changing marketplace,” said Steven Harper, professor emeritus and professor of entrepreneurship at UNCW, who happens to be a Kingoff’s customer. “I think Kingoff’s appeals to Wilmington and really to everyone. In my opinion when people buy jewelry, they want to trust the person behind the counter, and a 100-year legacy speaks volumes, especially for those moving to town.”
Even rarer is a third generation operation, Harper said. Michael, too, knows the statistics.
“Third generations have the highest failure rate,” Michael said, adding that, by the time the third generation is selected to take over, sometimes their hearts aren’t in the business fully, or times have changed too much for the business to keep up. For him, he said, it was never a question, and as a bonus, he loves what he does. He started at the store in the 1980s fresh out of college.
“We get to put smiles on people’s faces and not every career path can say that,” he said.
Wilmington and the world change
Michael said they compete more with internet jewelers than other local competition.
“Like any industry, technology has changed everything, but we still stick to the same formula we always have -- treating people like they want to be treated, like a guest in our home,” he said.
He and his mother Janice agreed that Wilmington has changed tremendously, more than their jewelry store. What was once an insular community now brings in newcomers from all around the country.
Janice said lifestyle shifts have also changed the types of things they sell at the store. Gone are the days of waffle makers and graduation teaspoons. Now, they have customers buying a ring for their second, third or even fourth wife, Michael said.
“The biggest change we’ve seen in our business is everyone’s morals,” Janice said. “It used to be you went from your father’s home to your husband’s. We had high school girls being presented with teaspoons, young brides picking out their china, crystal and silver -- everyone, I don’t care how poor they were -- they were picking out something,” she said.
Wilmington, like cities across the country, moved its commerce to the suburbs in shopping centers away from downtown, Kingoff’s watched as they all left.
“Truthfully we probably stayed downtown a little too long,” Michael said. His father warned him he would have a tough decision to make one day about leaving downtown and told him “history doesn’t pay the bills.” So in 2009 Michael finally pulled the trigger and closed the store on Front Street to open at Hanover Center.
Robberies and heists
Kingoff’s wouldn’t be a true jewelry legend without a story or two about robberies and heists.
As Michael Kingoff tells it, in the 1940s, a band of robbers took jewels and money from the shop. The criminals left a note that said, “thanks for the goodies.” They also left behind a pen that came from a diner about 20 miles north.
“Being an immigrant, my grandfather took the robbery personally,” Michael said.
Ben went to the diner and asked questions. Employees confirmed some “city slickers” had stopped by and they gave him some more clues. Three days later, Ben physically pulled the suspects out of a New Year’s Eve house party in Pennsylvania, with police waiting outside.
In 2003, Kingoff’s was again robbed. The criminals in this instance held up a now-closed satellite location, but the story ended in a wildly different way.
Several suspects cased the store before spraying Michael and other employees with Mace before taking claw hammers to the cases and running out with $100,000 in jewelry.
Tashawn Wilson was convicted of the crimes two years later. A habitual felon status for other jewelry thefts landed him a prison sentence for 16 years, but Wilson actually reached out to Michael to apologize.
“He eventually wrote me a 10-page letter that had us all in tears,” Michael said, admitting he refused the restitution money, insisting it should be spent on Wilson’s children and five grandchildren.
To this day Michael and Wilson are pen pals, and Michael sends his grandchildren gift cards for clothes when needed.
“He gets out in a few years, and I’ll be there to help him,” Michael said.