'Never want to retire': Hettinger jewelry, gift shop celebrates 45 years
KB Jewelers & Gift Shop in Hettinger has been serving the community for 45 years. We spoke with owners Kent and Kathleen Brackel to find out what's made them so successful.
HETTINGER, N.D. — KB Jewelers has been the gem of Hettinger for 45 years, and it's still going strong. Owner and founder Kent Brackel graduated from high school in 1973 and was unsure of his career path. His uncle Bob Brackel was a watchmaker who had passed a couple years prior. So he bought the tools from his aunt, began an apprenticeship under his father who was also a watchmaker and completed a course through the Chicago School of Watchmaking. He then passed a state test to become a licensed watchmaker.
At age 21, he bought Britton Jewelers’ Hettinger location and opened KB Jewelers in 1977. Three years later, he moved the business to its current location at 206 N. Main St.
Entrepreneurship was cut-throat in the late 1970s with rampant inflation, a stagnant economy and record-high oil prices. Kathleen recently discovered some of Kent’s old business loan documents. She noticed he was paying 24% interest on one loan and 18% on another.
“That 24%, I mean a quarter of every dollar I made was going to the bank. We struggled for a while and had some bad years with drought. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing,” he said, explaining that historically their success has been tied to the fortunes of farming and livestock producers. “Well, because we're such a rural community, and my dad always said this, 'When the farmers have money, everybody's got money because they spend it. When they don't, nobody does.'”
He has a small welder at the front corner of the store behind a counter, and shared a funny story about a customer who stood next to it thinking it was a heater.
“I had this old farmer come in here one day and I had that thing going. The flame is so small that you can’t hardly see it. He thought it was a heater and he had this nice down jacket,” Kent said. “His jacket started on fire! He didn’t even notice. I got up and holy cow, I started beating the flames out.”
He has a strong passion for antique and vintage clocks. He explained how excited he was to put a new spin on one particular antique clock that was brought to him by a woman from Elgin, North Dakota.
“She said she can remember her dad winding it. That was a unique clock, because you never saw too many clocks that were key-wind like that. And of course, the movement on it was old and it was so worn that I couldn't repair it,” he said. “So I told her I could put a battery-operated movement in that, use the same hands and you'll never know the difference; other than you don't have to wind it. So I did that one for her.”
Not just diamonds
After Kent and Kathleen Brackel married in 1983, they decided to expand their merchandise.
“We really expanded the gift line. In fact, we've almost thought about taking ‘jewelers’ off the front and just putting ‘gifts’ because people see jewelers and they don't want to come in. They think it’s all expensive stuff,” he said. “Somebody from Peacock will say, ‘Well, go over there, it's a beautiful store.' They come in here and they just can't believe it.”
Selling books has been surprisingly lucrative for KB Jewelers. They have one room dedicated to religious and inspirational books, as well as a general section that she moved up front because sales have been booming. They include titles from the New York Times Best Sellers List, fiction, local history and children’s books as well as puzzles.
“The more books I have, the more I sell. I just thought with all the Kindles and electronic ways to read that nobody would buy books,” Kathleen said.
Kent explained that it helped keep the operation above water during the pandemic.
“That kind of saved us during COVID because we were closed for one month. She put all the books on Facebook and we did curbside pickup,” he said, conveying his preference for physical reading materials. “It’s the same with a newspaper. If I couldn’t put it in my hand and read it, I wouldn’t read the newspaper.”
Supply chain struggles have caused major headaches for the business, Kent said.
“You can't get anything. You can't get stained glass lamps. I mean, there's so much stuff that you can't get those blankets over there. We must have sold 20 of those last summer when it was 95 degrees because people just love them,” he said. “Then we couldn't get any more. We just got an order yesterday, and we'd had that order in since January. This supply chain thing, it's just killing everybody.”
Another key aspect of their business is trophies, plaques and awards for county fairs and area schools. Several years ago, Kent bought out a local trophy making business. He said it used to take forever doing that work by hand, but now he has a computerized machine to help.
“This is my hired man right here, because I can engrave 27 or however many plates at a time and just walk away,” he said.
The store is festive and decorates for holidays such as Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas among others. For Christmas, they have eight trees throughout the store. For the past 22 years, they’ve held a “fantasy night” sale on the first Tuesday of December in which they serve wine, soda and food. During the pandemic, this was switched to a daytime event.
“For fantasy night the last two years, we’ve covered all the windows with black plastic, turned off the top lights and we have a 20% off storewide. It’s so beautiful in here,” she said.
'A good life'
Kathleen said being part of this business adventure has been a wonderful journey.
“It’s been a good life. I just love what I do. I want to go to work every day, and not many people feel that way,” she said. “We’ve talked about retiring but I don’t ever want to retire. I just plan on dying in here.”
The Brackels have been very active in their community over the decades. Kathleen has had a parade float every year for decades and has been a leader in helping organize parades in Hettinger. Kent served as a volunteer EMT for 32 years and as a volunteer firefighter for 36.
Five years ago, he suffered a stroke as a result of heart arrhythmia caused by heat exhaustion while fighting a ranch fire around 2014. He considers it a miracle that he was in Minneapolis at the time of the stroke where he was able to receive exceptional surgical care, but still has neuropathy in his left hand and compared it to having sparklers underneath his skin.
“It's so weird. I can tell it's one or the other because my hand just starts tingling like crazy, but I can't tell if it's hot or cold,” he said. “I always say, that's God reminding me how lucky I am. So I'm not complaining, believe me.”