85-year-old jeweler leaves with a twinkle in his eye

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December 15, 2003 // UPDATED 11:09 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Ben Badiner retires after 70 years in the business

Downtown jeweler Ben Badiner, 85, says he treats all customers the same whether they spend $10 in his store or $1,000.

He picked up the habit from his father, David Badiner, a Russian immigrant who started Badiner Jewelers in North Minneapolis in 1928.

"I learned from my father to be nice to everybody," he said, reminiscing on his 70 years in the jewelry business -- which will end with his announced retirement early next year.

For Badiner, meeting all kinds of people has been the most meaningful part of his work and what he'll miss most when he's retired.

He's attracted a diverse collection of customers over the years. He recalls when customers would put $1 down on a piece of jewelry and then pay $1 a week until they had paid for the item in full.

One customer, in particular, sticks out in his memory. She came in years ago wanting her watch repaired -- a vintage Boluva watch. She told Badiner she bought the watch 25 years earlier in his store.

"I got a kick out of her and fixed it for free," he said.

Sometimes his generosity irks his co-workers and family. They tell him he's too soft and doesn't charge enough when he's selling a piece.

Now, he plans on selling some pieces in his personal inventory. Over the years, his family has accumulated a multimillion dollar collection of diamonds, pearls and other gems, and Badiner is selling some of them at 30 percent to 60 percent off. His son, Steve, and grandson, Marc, will continue running the family business in the IDS Center, 80 S. 8th St.

Ben Badiner plans to spend time traveling with his wife, Anita, but will keep close ties to the business in his retirement.

The business has become a second home to the jeweler and his co-workers a second family. Old pictures of Badiner hang in the store and in a display case near an IDS entranceway on street level. A couple photos show him flexing his biceps -- one from his youth when he boxed for fun at the Downtown YMCA.

For someone versed in a luxurious trade and a businessman who has accumulated a multimillion dollar collection of jewelry, Badiner maintains an air of modesty. A man of small stature with thick, curly white eye brows, he's quick to share tales of Downtown's past and often reflects on lessons he learned from his father.

He grew up in North Minneapolis and started working at his father's store at the age of 15. When he first started, David Badiner had a store on Plymouth Avenue North.

Coming of age in the Depression shaped his outlook on life.

"Nobody had anything, but neighbors helped one another out," he said.

His father, in particular, took care to help those in need, even while he struggled to make ends meet.

The monthly mortgage payment on the family house back then was $36.23, Badiner recalled in precise detail. The meager sum by today's standards could be difficult to come up with in those days, he said.

The Badiners moved Downtown in 1933, opening in a spot at 610 Hennepin Ave. S. The long-time jeweler used to take the streetcar to work from his home on the North side.

He wiped windows in the store and observed his father in the art of selling. "I learned to be nice to everybody regardless of how they were dressed -- whether they bought a $10 band or a $5,000 ring," he said.

Twenty-five years ago, the Badiners moved the business to the IDS Center.

He has met more people through work than he has socially, and admits he's been a workaholic over the years, often putting in six days a week from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. Around Christmas, he'll often work in the shop until 2 a.m.

The jeweler has poured most of the money he's earned back into his business. He drove a 1981 Cadillac until last year, but had to let it go. It only went forward, not backward. At the urging of his son, he bought a new Toyota last year.

On a recent afternoon, long-time customers strolled in to congratulate him on his retirement. One of the patrons, Minneapolis attorney Alan Wilensky, 56, had high praise for the jeweler.

Wilensky has been frequenting the store since he was a teenager.

"You could not find a nicer, more decent or honorable merchant than Ben Badiner. You always had a strong sense that he did really care," Winkler said. "He has a great twinkle in his eye that reflects a genuine friendliness or friendship with a customer."

Although Badiner has modest roots and appears to value philanthropy over personal wealth, he still appreciates a fine piece of jewelry. He wears a stunning ring with three diamonds on his right hand. The gems are from his mother's engagement ring and a pair of her earrings.

When asked about his favorite piece, he unveiled an exquisite 1920s-era necklace with diamonds and emeralds of various cuts purchased at an estate sale. He pointed out its intricate features, eyeing it with a special pair of jeweler spectacles.

"Diamonds are forever. They are keepsakes," he said.