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In the 1950s, a former cotton picker named Gene Rader established a small jewelry store that has become a Paris landmark. And now that landmark will soon shut its doors.
Talking to Gene the Jeweler owner Randy Rader about the decision to close his family’s business, it quickly becomes apparent it was a difficult one.
“I was born into it,” Randy said, his voice shaking. “I don’t know anything else but that. I’ve been very blessed to be able to work with my parents roughly 30 of my 35 years in this business.”
The Rader family has worked with five generations of brides, helping them pick out rings and settle on a china pattern. Randy said he loved being part of so many families’ stories in Paris. Even today, people come to the store and talk about how he or his parents sold them their rings.
“You’re at the beginning of that relationship,” he said. “Then they say, ‘We want to bring our kids in to buy their wedding rings.’ That’s the high point for me. And they’re still wearing those rings. It means a lot to them.”
A Lamar County native “born in the middle of Pat Mayse,” Gene was a cotton picker before he got into the jewelry business. He couldn’t serve in World War II because of a bout of rheumatic fever, Randy said.
“I used to pick 375 pounds a day,” Gene said. “I was a real cotton picker. I was known as the ‘Glory Flash.’”
A friend named Sam West helped him get into the watchmaking program at Paris Junior College in the mid-1940s. After that, Gene went to work for W.M. House at House Jewelry, which sat in the same location Gene the Jeweler is today.
“I became a great mechanic, a full-blood tinker,” he said.
Gene started out as a watch repairman and later started working in sales. He became good friends with House, and someone everyone took a liking to, Randy said. Which in turn helped him start his own business.
“I had a great gift of gab,” Gene said. “That’s kind of how it happened.”
It probably didn’t hurt that Gene always had a reputation as a colorful character with bright suits.
“He got famous for wearing bowler hats he had imported from London,” Randy said.
He even developed a name for himself as an entertainer. He appeared in 14 movies – including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Outlaw Blues, The Sugarland Express, Honeysuckle Rose and Liar’s Moon – and joined Johnny Carson on TV in 1986.
“If I could have given up fishing and gone into movies, I would have been a big star,” he said. “I’m the only man in Paris, Texas, who got to wipe Goldie Hawn’s windshield.”
Gene and wife Dorothy met while he was working as a repairman – trying to fix her watch after he broke it. They were married three months later.
“After they married, they worked hand in hand,” Randy said. “They formed a great partnership between them.”
Gene the Jeweler opened in 1953 in room 214 of the First National Bank building downtown. The business moved to its present location at 21 Clarksville St. after the House family moved their operation to the square.
At first, the Raders sold nothing but jewelry. The bridal shop opened in the 1970s, offering a wide assortment of wedding gifts from china to crystal to pots and pans. Jewelry sales tend to be seasonal, but a bridal shop runs year round.
“Many times I’ve said I’d like to close the bridal shop down,” Randy said. “He said, ‘Son, you’ll be twiddling your fingers if you do.’ So we never did shut it down.”
The combination is something of an anomaly these days, he said. Most jewelers stay strictly with jewelry. Not that the jewelry side of the Raders’ business went hurting.
“It grew to where we had one of the largest wedding ring selections. It was as big as some of the biggest stores in Dallas,” he said. “It was about as big as an independent store could get.”
Randy took over in 1978, shortly after graduating from Paris High School. He said he was sitting at the front of the store when his father came up to talk to him.
“He said, ‘I’ll be back in 30 minutes,’ and he never came back,” Randy said. “I think he knew we wouldn’t get along working at the store together. He was ready to start fishing, anyway.”
Gene and Dorothy remained involved in the store’s operations for decades after their son took the reins. It was an operation that worked, and worked well. The store was voted Paris’ best jewelry store so often “we don’t even hang them up any more,” Randy said.
Then near Thanksgiving of this year, the family announced they planned to close the store after six decades in business. Randy said many have asked if the economy had anything to do with it, but business was actually going well and he was thinking of expanding the store, despite a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in September 2012. A month after the diagnosis, he underwent an extensive procedure known as a Whipple surgery.
The surgery, combined with radiation and chemotherapy, seemed to have gotten the whole thing. But last October, a scan revealed the cancer had spread to his liver and bloodstream. Randy was given six months to a year to live.
Gene is in his late 80s, Dorothy died about four years ago, and there were no other family members interested in running the store. Randy looked into selling the business, but there was no market for it, so liquidation was the only option. He said it will likely take at least another month to clear out the inventory.
“It was one of those decisions I never thought I’d have to make,” Randy said. “Everything changed in a matter of days. God blessed us with a great family business.”
Gene frequently says Parisians are the best people in the world and he enjoyed working with them for so many years.
“I was just in love with it,” Gene said. “I had a good wife. She was the backbone.”
Gene the Jeweler has seen record number of customers since the announcement was made, often people who can’t leave without saying a kind word and recounting stories about their experiences in the store. And the Raders have been there through it all.
“We’ve seen it all – the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s been a beautiful business,” Randy said. “It was never a dull moment. That was Gene the Jeweler.”