As a young man, Don Johnson Jr. didn’t think he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a jewelry store owner.
“I spent time in Europe, I lived in Indonesia, the States, all over Canada, travelled the world because there’s bigger and better out there,” says the owner of Don Johnson Jewellers in the City Centre Mall, who announced at the end of November that he will soon be retiring and selling the business, which has operated continuously in Thompson for more than 55 years.
But all that exploring led him to realize something closer to home as well.
“What I discovered, in fact, is that Thompson is an amazing place to live,” Johnson says. “The air is clean, the people are just the salt of the Earth. There’s amazing people in Thompson, always has been.”
So when Don Johnson Sr. retired in 1983, his son bought the business with a partner who used to work at the store, whom he eventually bought out 14 years later, a few years before moving the business to the City Centre Mall. An instrumental partner in his business for the last several years has been his wife, classically trained soprano singer Maria Luz Alvarez, whom he met in Spain.
“One week turned into a year which turned into a career so here we are,” said Johnson, who has lived in Thompson since his parents brought him and his sisters north in 1962, figuring that they would only be in town for two to five years. Johnson Sr. was a Rotarian in Thompson for nearly 50 years and Johnson Jr. a Kinsman for 12 years, and both volunteered for and contributed to numerous other organizations and causes.
“Now I’m at an age where I need to retire and so I need to divest myself of the business so I will be eventually selling Don Johnson Jewellers but in the meantime we’re going to have a massive liquidation, get our inventory down to where it’s financially affordable to an individual,” he said.
Though times are currently tough in Thompson, Johnson Jr. says financial considerations aren’t the motivation behind his decision to sell the store.
“We’ve managed to outlive one competitor for 20 years and another competitor for 25 years and they were both national chains and here we are, the little northern jeweller still standing,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we had our best year in the history of the store in 2017. Thompson is alive and well. Unfortunately the calendar tells me that it’s time to go. I was wanting out two years ago, two-and-a-half years ago, you know, the whole Freedom 55 thing. Then it was Freedom 56. Now it’s Freedom 59.”
Don Johnson Jewellers never distinguished itself by holding big sales with prices marked down from levels they had been previously jacked up to. Instead, the focus was on keeping customers happy so that they would be back again and again.
“We can only be part of a relationship between a customer and a merchant,” Johnson Jr. says. “We’ve had plenty of people come in to buy an engagement ring and mentioned that both my dad and my grandfather bought their engagement rings and wedding bands from Don Johnson Jewellers. If you can have that kind of a reputation, it didn’t come by accident. We made mistakes but we also made a lot of people happy over the years. It doesn’t matter the price tag of what they bought, they need to be happy when they leave.”
Johnson Jr. has seen a lot change over his his time in Thompson, both good times and bad.
“We’ve seen it before the streets were paved, we’ve seen it when there’s been strikes,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine a different place to grow up and live, to have a place like Paint Lake as your playground growing up if you’re an outdoors person. Snowmobiling you can go as far as you can with a tank of gas through the bush, down hydro lines and it’s all Crown land. Summertime, the fishing is world class. People come in from all over the world to come fishing in Northern Manitoba and we get it for free because we live here. Our water is clean right out of the tap. The air is fresh and clean. It’s a beautiful place to live.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t spend some of his retirement elsewhere, however.
“It’s a big world. We’ll have to see,” he says. “When you’re retired, you’ve got all the time in the world but actually you don’t know how much time you have so it’s just best to enjoy every day.”
No matter what, a reminder of his family will remain in their adopted home.
“I designed and built the J.F. Thompson clock in front of City Hall so a little bit of a legacy,” he says.
One thing Johnson Jr. says he won’t be doing is selling his business to anyone who can’t maintain the service standard he and his father have been known for.
“We have a reputation,” he said. “The last three owners have had a set of standards so either the new folks will agree to conform to those standards or I will not sell my name.”
When the day comes to leave the jewelry business behind, there is one thing Johnson Jr. says he won’t miss.
“I won’t be changing watch batteries anymore.”