For rural business, being in a small town can be a problem: there’s a limited pool of customers; and shipping products hundreds of miles is expensive. But there are businesses that benefit from the peace and quite away from the city.
Kristian Foden-Vencil visited a clockmaker in Sisters and reports that 40 years of quiet dedication are now paying off.
Just off Main Street, Sisters is a handsome clapboard building with a wrap-around porch. That’s where you’ll find Beacham’s Clock Company.
Walking in at two in the afternoon is like walking into a bygone era. Hundreds of clocks chime — as if in celebration of the hour.
Then, they quiet in anticipation of the three o’clock celebration. The walls are lined with the timepieces of Lenzkirsch and Seth Thomas. And on the floor stands a small army of grandfather clocks by Herschedes and E. Howard.
And, tucked in a corner, there’s something even rarer: a bona fide master clockmaker.
Ed Beacham sits at a bench, bent over the handmade brass gears of his latest creation.
Ed Beacham: “A lot of what I try and do is recreate an historic era.”
Beacham has been building clocks since the 1960s.
Ed Beacham: “I’m unusual in the field, in that I’m classified as a complete master clockmaker. I start from a design idea or a picture that I see.”
He’s what’s known as an horologist and Clocks Magazine calls him the only master clockmaker in the country who can construct not just the gears and springs of a timepiece, but the face, the hands and the entire wooden case. Standing next to an E. Howard Grandfather Clock he explains his vision.
Ed Beacham: “They would do an astro-dial which would have minutes around the outside, seconds up there and then hours in the bottom. Well, I don’t like that dial. I wanted something with more splash. So I did the gravity escapement on the front that you see and this rotating globe - that was actually an afterthought.”
Kristian Foden-Vencil: “Now this piece probably $10,000”
Ed Beacham: “$30,000.”
Kristian Foden-Vencil: “Do you get enough people dropping by to buy these things?”
Ed Beacham: “Yeah, surprisingly.”
Beacham is gregarious with white hair and glasses that perch on the end of his nose. And when I nod wisely to say yes, he can charge such prices because of the Internet, he laughs.
Beacham says his website is an after thought and accounts for only about five percent of his business. His success stems from old-fashioned word-of-mouth, that’s been given a boost by his location in a tourist town.
Ed Beacham: “We end up with quite a calling card. We’ve met people here from Brazil, from Belgium, all over the world. It’s just amazing that they vacation here. We’ve met people from China, from France. And so correspondingly we have sales in Germany, Switzerland India and New Zealand.”
Sisters only has about 15,000 residents. But during the summer, twice that many tourists spend time here. But Beacham says he didn’t set up in Sisters because of the tourists. It was all about the peace and quiet.
Ed Beacham: “The more people you have, the more time they take you off the bench to talk to them, which if you don’t do that, you don’t get the sales. So I like being on a back street in a quiet little town. And when it’s quiet on the week, I can get a lot of work done. And then when it gets a little more busy on the weekends and you’re being a little more, presenting what you do. That works pretty good too.”
It may seem a little unusual, but Beacham says he’s never really focused on making money.
Ed Beacham: “Yeah it’s absolutely play. It’s like if you could make a living model railroading. I like making things. I like building. I like creating. I like designing. What amazes me most about myself is that I have the patience to make 100 parts and be able to put it together when I get done. A lot of times I’ll have a movie going on the TV in the wood shop. And I just play all day. I put in a 10 hour day and I absolutely love it and I never really think about it in terms of dollars per hour.”
It’s refreshing to talk to someone who does what they love — and manages to make a good living. But I can hear the cynics: “We can’t all be clockmakers.” And that’s true.
Mike Russo, an economics professor with the University of Oregon, says it’s a business model that can work under specific circumstances — think of people who make musical instruments or artisans who work on handmade saddles.
Mike Russo: “In order for the model to succeed, it has to involve highly specialized skills that are hard to replicate. And the fact that other makers of timepieces are moving close by to learn from the great master suggest that his set of skills indeed fit the bill in that regard.”
It’s true. While five clock shops have closed in the Portland area over the last few years, clock repairman Reed Strickland just moved to Sisters — to be close to Beacham. And then, across Beacham’s store sits a new inductee into the trade — 28-year-old Keaton Myrick.
Keaton Myrick: “I don’t know how I got into watches. It’s just something that’s always been a passion of mine. And as of lately, it’s become just a complete absorption. It’s all I really do and all I really think about.”
Myrick just graduated from the ‘Lititz Watch Technicum’ in Central Pennsylvania and he’s betting his career that in this age of plastic throw-away watches, people will still buy handmade timepieces. He’s made one so far, and he’s in the middle of what might be considered his major opus — a so-called tourbillon pocket watch.
Keaton Myrick: “These first few pieces really establish who you are as a watchmaker. And that’s why I’ve chosen this ambitious project because I want to show these fundamentals.”
The pocket watch might take him a year to make — and it may never sell — because it’s going to have a price tag of tens of thousands of dollars. But Myrick is willing to risk it, in part because he’s young and excited. But also because he has the Internet.
Keaton Myrick: “Even with a small web presence, once these watches come out and my fundamentals are established, the rest will kind of happen.”
And surprisingly, economics professor Mike Russo thinks Myrick might do okay.
Mike Russo: “What the Internet does for you is allow you to combine the old-world craftsmanship with modern day communications abilities. So you can get the word out about your craft and perhaps reach people that otherwise would have no idea that you exist.”
Myrick says the plan is to pay his bills over the next year by repairing watches that people bring in to Beacham’s Clocks. And over time he hopes to experience the kind of renown, peace and income that his mentor, Ed Beacham, has come to enjoy.
This story is part of our Rural Economy Project. We’re looking at how small businesses and communities around Oregon are coping with the recession that began last year. Next, we’ll find out how community banks are helping small towns and local businesses.