When the bell is rung outside the single-story, 12-foot-wide peak-roofed building tucked between much larger buildings on Geneva Avenue near Mission Street, an El Salvadorian man behind a desk topped with a mountain of watches buzzes customers into his tiny shop full of shiny and ancient-looking items.
“Ask me what I don’t have,” Nelson Diaz said, the owner of Tony’s Watch and Jewelry Repair at 921 Geneva Avenue. “I have custom jewelry. I have gold. I have silver. We have a variety of products, merchandise for the whole neighborhood.”
Nelson and his wife Maria Diaz have owned the tiny store for 23 years, repairing watches and jewelry, selling porcelain dolls, brooches, dishware, figurines, paper money, coins and other memorabilia. The tiny shop is a neighborhood hangout for a diverse mix of people young and old. Customers come in with a variety of requests from watch battery replacements to fixing a metal link on a handbag.
Many loyal customers rely on them for repairs, friendship, and an amiable face to visit
in the neighborhood. “We try our best to fix almost anything,” Mr. Diaz said. “No matter whether it is jewelry, leather, metals—any kind of thing—even glasses.”
The Diazes work six days a week, eight hours a day at the store and on Sundays Mr. Diaz sells and purchases items at the Alemany Flea Market. On an average day, 40 to 50 customers walk in to say a quick hello, exchange collectable items or get have batteries replaced.
The store’s central location next to public transit, a hardware store and Walgreens, brings a steady flow of foot traffic. Most afternoons the store is packed wall to wall with customers. Sometimes five to ten people are waiting to be helped by Mrs. Diaz at the front counter.
Each day Mrs. Diaz manages the repair orders and pick-ups while engaging in lengthy personal conversations with the customer during their pick-up of fixed and polished jewelry.
“I enjoy talking to the people that walk in. Sometimes crazy people walk in but I try to deal with them.” Mrs. Diaz said. The Diaz family is the second owner of store, succeeding the original owner Antonio Tamayo who opened the business in 1971 and also owned a laundromat in the Excelsior.
“They fix everything, especially in a timely manner,” said a loyal customer Connie Carrington. “I need to come more often than I do. They have quality jewelry.” Carrington visits Mr. and Mrs. Diaz, who she calls Papa and Mama, at least once a month, every time walking out with a new sparkling accessory to wear.
Mr. Diaz makes his annual trips to customers’ homes to replace batteries in large grandfather clocks or mechanically wind others. “This is a helpful service to the old timers, I go six or seven times a year,” Mr. Diaz said.
While working side by side each day, Mrs. Diaz deals with customers and Mr. Diaz deals with the repairs. Mr. Diaz prefers to sit at his desk and replace batteries all day and recycle the stone, silver and gold from old jewelry pieces.
“I am quite comfortable with her,” Mr. Diaz said. “She explains to me what I need to get done, the sooner we get it done we call the client, and it’s money in our pockets.”
Mr. and Mrs. Diaz met in 1984 vacationing separately in Reno, California one year after they immigrated to the U.S. from different countries. Mr. Diaz immigrated from El Salvador in 1983 after traveling throughout Central America.
He settled in San Francisco because his sister lived in the city. That same year Mrs. Diaz immigrated to San Francisco from Honduras and moved to the city because of relatives. Together they enrolled in English as a second language classes at Mission High school and opened the store in 1992.
Mr. Diaz jumped at the opportunity to own the store after having worked 19 stressful years as a head bus boy at the Hilton Hotel in downtown San Francisco. He quit his job and began cleaning houses where he accumulated items people no longer wanted. The small store was the perfect place to sell his collectables.
“Since I was born, I have liked business,” said Mr. Diaz. His mother who owned a small shop in El Salvador selling chickens and household items modeled shop keeping to him. He learned to fix watches and jewelry from his uncle.
In recent years, business has been challenging due to the cost increase of rent and supplies. “The neighborhood has not changed much,” says Mr. Diaz. “Asian businesses are moving in but the amount of foot traffic has stayed constant.”
Many customers tell Mr. Diaz he should purchase a larger store space, but Mr. Diaz does not mind the tight quarters. “Sometimes it’s hard working in a small space, but it helps to keep our cost down, because we would have to increase the cost for our services.” An average battery replacement cost about $6 compared to $12 to $15 at other repair shops.
To help with the store’s income Mr. Diaz attends flea markets. Every Sunday Mr. Diaz sets up a booth at the Alemany Flea Market at 5:00 a.m. He says he does not make much money at the flea market, but it gives him a chance to purchase items.
Mr. Diaz stopped traveling to the Santa Cruz Flea Market a few years ago because of the long hours and commute away from his wife, three kids, and five grandchildren on Sundays.
From time to time Mr. Diaz donates items he purchases in bulk from estate sales—silverware, cups, clothes—to a care home for abused women and their children.
They previously owned a second watch and jewelry repair store called Attic Treasures in San Bruno but closed it after 15 months due to a lack of revenue.
About 16 years ago, the business suffered greatly after a burglary and the devastating loss of money and gold stolen when Mr. Diaz was held up gunpoint. “The first thing I was thinking about was my wife and the kids,” Mr. Diaz said. “I’d rather lose something than a life.” It took Mr. and Mrs. Diaz a while to rebuild the business.
For nearly half a century, the watch and jewelry repair store has remained family owned. Ever since she can remember, Elizabeth Diaz, the youngest daughter, has helped her parents at the store. “If I was not in school I was here,” she said. “It’s a family business. I have to be here.”
Elizabeth attends City College of San Francisco and plans to transfer into a nursing program. She comes to the store between classes to help her parents with tasks they cannot do such as dusting tops of shelves. She says her dad is aging and her mother suffers from arthritis in her legs.
“But my dad will not retire,” she said. “He’s always working; he does not know how to relax. He will not stop until he is forced to.” The Diaz siblings plan to take over the business when their parents retire. They would be sad to see it close with three generations of family members coming for watch repairs.
“We cannot go anywhere in the neighborhood without being stopped by customers in the streets saying hello or starting a conversation,” Elizabeth said. “My parents are famous.”
Watch Emma Chiang’s accompanying video story about the Diazes and their business.