Spokane Journal of Business

Where time is the essence

The Clock House

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The hundreds of clocks that line the walls and fill display racks at The Clock House unswervingly tick off the seconds and mark the top of each hour with a crescendo of chimes and cuckoos. Yet, time in this shop, which focuses on the age-old craftsmanship of clockmaking, seems to have stood still.

At his workbench in the corner, co-owner Walter Zimke cleans and repairs heirloom clocks whose ticks have measured out the passage of a century or more, and provides maintenance for newer clocks that use the same types of time-proven mechanisms. The gears, mainsprings, pendulums, and other precise apparatus have remained largely unchanged for centuries, as have the patience and skills required to maintain them, he says.

Such attributes also are useful in operating the small business he owns with his wife, Petra Zimke, who handles sales, bookkeeping, and what she calls the little detailswinding the clocks, dusting their intricately carved woodwork, and setting up displays of the shops varied and ever-changing inventory.

The Clock House, a tenant at Shadle Center for more than 25 years, moved to 822 W. Garland this spring to make way for the massive redevelopment project planned at Shadle Center. Petra Zimke says the old-fashioned, Main Street-feel of the Garland District is a good match with the shop, and the 900-square-foot building, though slightly smaller than the couples Shadle store, is a good home for the longtime retailer.

The Clock House sells 40 styles of Black Forest cuckoo clocks decorated with delicate carvings, about 20 styles of glass-domed anniversary clocks, 20 types of mantle clocks, and several designs of stately grandfather clocks, as well as alarm clocks, small table clocks, and more unusual clocks. A selection of wall clocks includes classic wood-framed timepieces, kitschy Kit-Cat clocks with rolling eyes and twitching tails, glowing neon clocks, and novelty clocks.

The intricately carved cuckoo clocks and most of the other timepieces in the shop are from Germany, the Zimkes says. Many of the mantle clocks are Italian-made, and the grandfather clocks are made in the U.S. with German movements. Petra Zimke says her husband used to travel to Europe to buy clocks directly, but now buys from importers here in the U.S.

Although Walter Zimke says he prefers a real clock, with an old-fashioned mechanism that must be wound, The Clock House also sells clocks with electronic quartz movements. The Zimkes say such clocks are especially popular with busy young people who might appreciate the heirloom styling, but dont have time for the winding and maintenance old-fashioned clocks require.

Prices at The Clock House range from around $20 for some of the alarm clocks and battery-operated wall clocks, to about $3,000 for a grandfather clock, Walter Zimke says. The cuckoo clocks range in price from about $100 for the simplest to nearly $1,200 for a highly decorated clock featuring a family of deer.

The Zimkes estimate that about 40 percent of their businesss revenue comes from retail sales. Petra Zimke says that fall and winter, when people shop for Christmas, are the shops busiest seasons. Sales are steady the rest of the year, with many customers buying clocks as gifts for weddings, anniversaries, or retirements.

The other 60 percent of the stores revenues come from servicing clocks. We have quite a demand for repairs, Walter Zimke says.

Indeed, demand is so high that a sign on the shops counter announces that repairs can take as long as six months, as Walter Zimke works his way through a steady stream of maintenance, repair, and restoration jobs. The Zimkes say they rely on word-of-mouth to bring customers in from across Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and even British Columbia and Alberta.

Walter Zimke says people often bring in for repair clocks their ancestors brought across the plains by wagon. While some of these heirlooms have been in use for a century or more, many have stopped working and been relegated to dusty attics long ago. When an antique clock hasnt worked for ages, having to wait an additional six months for repairs isnt a problem for most owners, he says.

Zimke says he still sees some old clocks with wooden movements, but the most unusual clock hes ever worked on was made in China in about the 17th century, he estimates. The clock appeared to be just a smooth wooden box. I didnt even know how to get inside, to find the clocks face, much less its mechanism, he says. The grime of ages had obscured the delicate hinges and seams that allowed the box to open to reveal the clocks face. With careful observation and cleaning, he was able to open and repair the clock.

The number of craftspeople in the U.S. who can repair clocks is dwindling; as those who have that specialized skill retire or die, no new repairers are trained, and few training programs continue to operate, the Zimkes say. The couple says that in their native Germany, clockmaking and repair is a revered profession that requires a three-and-a-half year apprenticeship.

Walter Zimke started working on clocks in Germany as a youth, and after a stint in the German army, came to the U.S. in 1970. A trip back then to California began as a vacation, but he soon decided he wanted to stay. So, in need of a job and a sponsor, he signed a three-year contract with a Swiss optical instrument firm with facilities in California.

He made his way to Spokane in 1974 to attend The Worlds Fair and while here met Gunter Horn, who had opened The Clock House in 1970. Walter Zimke became a partner in the business in 1975 and the sole proprietor in 1980. He and Petra were married in 1984.

The Clock House is strictly a family business, the Zimkes say. Even though the workload is great, they dont plan to hire additional employees, partly because trained craftsmen are scarce. With a list of repair jobs waiting and a small work area, Walter Zimke says he has no time or room to train an apprentice.

The Zimkes decline to disclose the shops revenues. It wont make us millionaires, but we live comfortably, Petra Zimke says.

She says the old-fashioned craftsmanship and personal service is often rewarded with old-fashioned gratitude. In addition to payment, a farmer in Oregon to whom they delivered a clock gave them a goose he had raised and slaughtered, and another customer who had been fishing in Alaska shared his catch.

Our customers, people with old-fashioned clocks, they are really nice people, Petra says.

  • Anita Burke

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