Though Gennaro Jewelers has been in business in Bellmore for 95 years, the customer service remains similar to when Erwin Von der Heydt opened the store in May 1923, even as the community around it has changed drastically.
Gary Hudes, the store’s owner since 1999 and an employee since 1979, has made it his mission to serve customers on a personal level, down to driving a repaired watch to someone’s house himself, should the job take longer than expected.
“Small things are what add up to big things,” Hudes said last week.
Small things — like the slogans posted around the Bedford Avenue store reminding customers that “Our business is only here because of you” — have helped what was a small operation, when Hudes joined previous owner Louis Gennaro in 1979, grow into the bustling 36-employee shop it is today.
When Hudes came on board, downtown Bellmore was suffering, due to the proliferation of strip malls on Sunrise Highway and elsewhere. Hudes recalled the situation coming to a head for him in the early 1980s, when he and Gennaro stepped outside their shop and looked up and down a deserted avenue.
“You could’ve played touch football in the street and not been hit by a car,” Hudes said. “Mr. Gennaro said to me, ‘Gary, I know we’ve been here since 1923, but maybe we should move the store.’”Hudes disagreed, and envisioned a rebuilt downtown with anchor stores — not to compete with the conveniences and aesthetics of strip malls, but as a counterbalance.
“We needed to remind people of the personal service that took place in the good old days, and that big-box stores can’t give you, no matter how hard they try,” he said.
Years later, Hudes said, he assembled a group, including members of the Chamber of Commerce of the Bellmores, and the Downtown Revitalization Project began.
With anchors such as a movie theater as well as a juiced-up street fair, the committee set about procuring state matching grants and county funds, in a roughly four-year process in the mid-1990s.
Restaurants followed the theaters, then small shops such as Dear Little Dollies, which was previously located on Merrick Road. “We courted them to come here,” Hudes said.
The project’s success received state and national recognition, with county financing helping with paving and sidewalks, town money going to lampposts and trees and a state matching grant for storefront improvements, according to a 1997 New York Times article highlighting the downtown resurgence.
The committee “came to us with dreams, thoughts, ideas and a wish list,” former Hempstead Town Supervisor Gregory Peterson told the Times. “We had to figure out a way to make it happen without a tax impact.”
Hudes said he was offered a $30,000 state salary to oversee the revitalization project, but he insisted that the money go to more storefront fixes.
“I told them this was a passion,” he said. “That I needed to see this done. I needed to see a downtown revitalization done.”
Hudes said he eventually agreed to a $1 salary, with the remaining $29,999 going toward marching grants to incentivize owners to redo their storefronts.
“Twenty years later, the stores are still filled,” Hudes said. “Now you can’t find a parking space here, and that’s the greatest testament to the downtown revitalization programs. It’s one of the most proud projects that I’ve done. With all the things that I’ve been involved in, this thing was the best.”
Staying in downtown Bellmore paid off for Hudes personally, as well, with a host of loyal customers who praise the service they receive from him.
“I do not even know where or how to begin to thank you for saving my family heirloom jewelry, which had been ravaged by the storm waters of [Hurricane Sandy],” one customer wrote to Hudes. “You showed such kindness, supportiveness and respect for what it meant to me.”
Ronnie Gies, of Merrick, told the Herald in 2014 that he bought his engagement ring at Gennaro because “they treat us like family.”
Hudes employs gemologists and diamond-setters to resize rings — even those bought at big-box stores — and watchbands, in front of customers.
That, he believes, along with his practice of making his personal email available to all customers, is what has kept Gennaro successful, and is the sort of thing that has allowed the downtown Bellmore project to pay off through the years.
“All of these services we offer is everything you can’t get at the big guys and on the internet,” he said. “We’re filling a huge void.”