With no one left to manage the boutique, a master watchmaker from Saint-Louis decides to stop |

AUSTIN HUGUELET St Louis Post-Expedition

BRENTWOOD, Missouri – The Clockmaster here is running out of time.

After more than three decades of solving the puzzles of century-old clocks and five-digit watches, Robert Good is ready to retire, and no one is ready to take over his store. So Good announces to its customers that its store is closing at the end of July.

“I don’t want to be morbid,” said Good, 66, “but I want to leave here without a toe tag.”

We will miss him. There are other watch shops in the area, but not as many as before. And reinforcements are scarce: his son does not want to stay in Missouri. Nobody, so far, wants to buy the store. Even the local watchmaking school – where students learn the art and science of watchmaking – lets it down. Enrollment at the institution in Quincy, Illinois, where Good himself learned, is less than a tenth of what it was 50 years ago.

But there is still work to be done: many people rely on him to keep their old clocks ticking. “We have people crying at the counter because they could hear the clock Grandma heard,” Good said.

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Garry Meyer came on Wednesday to retrieve a camel-backed mantel clock, with the distinctive hump of its namesake, and had a similar story. “My wife and I have had it since we got married 50 years ago,” he said, “and we can’t part with it.”

When Inez Barrett-Otey, 74, of Webster Groves, Missouri, arrived on Wednesday and learned that she could no longer have her two clocks repaired here, the news nearly overwhelmed her. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.

In the early 1980s, Good was a newly appointed teacher looking for something to do during summer vacation when he came across clock repair classes at Gem City College, Quincy. As a child, he liked to tinker with things – the washing machine, the bikes, the lawnmower – and thought it would be fun.

It was. Then he started getting notes on projects: it could also be a career.

Working with aspirin nearby

Within a few years, he settled into a small space in downtown St. Louis, a block from the Ark, and began to build up a clientele. Every morning, he basked in the smell of the kitchen at Tony’s, the dining institution, while he worked. In early 1989 he decided he was ready for something bigger, opened the Brentwood site and started hiring help.

He wasn’t ready. “My freshman year was horrible,” he said. “I tripled my expenses and my clientele was the same. I wanted to stop.” But with a little leeway from its owner and a lot of fuss, it slowly began to carve out a future for itself.

“I was ignorant until failure,” he said. “I hung on because that’s what I was good at.”

Many jobs simply required a new set of batteries, but any day someone could walk through the door with a small fortune to work on. Good still remembers a guy who came with his Swiss-made watches. Declared value? $35,000 each. “I had to work to keep a straight face,” Good recalled. “We jumped on them straight away, we didn’t want them hanging around.”

But he got more comfortable over time. Over the years he has got his hands on 200-year-old grandfather clocks with images of warships and wooden constellations, elaborate cuckoo clocks depicting idyllic German village scenes and larger projects, like the Union Station clock in St. Louis.

He didn’t much like the tower clocks – too big, too hot, too much pigeon poo. But he took a particular liking to Atmos clocks, a special line of Swiss chronometers that can wind themselves with the energy of temperature changes in a room. Atmos lovers would send their own from all over the country to work on it.

Some jobs required months or even a year of solving problems, trying different solutions, and then testing them to see if they held up. Some days he wouldn’t even want to look at a clock confusing him. But then he would be driving or doing something else, the inspiration would strike, and the work would become almost soothing. “I had a bottle of aspirin nearby, though,” he said.

Chicken farming

He also needed it for the business. A retail operation he created to supplement repair income collapsed with the start of online shopping. Finding help became more difficult as fewer people were interested in the job. And spare parts became scarce as the old clock companies went out of business and those that remained stopped selling parts to him, opting instead to repair their clocks themselves.

But he managed to source some parts through others with accounts at big companies, and the rest were sourced from China or made in-house. He enlisted his son, Sam, to join the workshop out of high school in 2013. And even though his retail business never really recovered, someone always brought something to fix. This proved especially true during the pandemic, as people were spending more time at home with broken clocks. Soon 100 of them were passing each month.

“It was recession proof,” Good said. “There was stuff I wouldn’t take out of a dumpster, but people would pay for it.”

They may be able to visit a Clockmaster again sometime after July 31. Good says he’s still talking to someone who owns other stores in the area about buying the business.

He will bring home one of the Atmos clocks. The rest of the shop will have to disappear. His wife has a long to-do list and they recently purchased a small farm near Warsaw, Missouri on Lake Truman. “We’re going to raise chickens,” Good said.

All that remains is to give everyone back their clock, lock the doors and go home.

Still, it’s unclear whether the house will be an escape.

The other day a roofer came by and told him about all the clocks he needed to get fixed. And Good was drawn in again.

Moreover, he has his own ideas. How about a cuckoo clock with an American twist: a locomotive bobbing on a tiny track instead of the bird, railroad spike weights instead of pine cones?

“I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna about this job,” he said. “But it’s pretty cool.”

Laura J. Boyer