Gunther Marx: A Gem of a Jeweler

Vol. IX No. 2 - FALL 1998

By: Sandra A. Remis

On March 18, 1995, Gunther Marx, owner of Gunther Marx Jewelry at 1125 W. Bryn Mawr since 1953, quietly closed up his shop for the last time. Before leaving for the green fields of retirement, the German refugee took time to share some of his thoughts and experiences from over 70 years of life - most of which were spent in Edgewater. Becoming a pillar of the community was one way of saying “thanks!” to the adopted country that gave him sanctuary from the killing fields of Hitler.

It was 1940 and times were perilous. Young Marx fled Nazi Germany with his parents and sister, traveling through the Soviet Union to Japan, then across the Pacific to Panama. He celebrated his 17th birthday in Siberia. The only jewel his eye was on then was Columbia - The Gem of the Ocean.

By the time the Marx family reached Panama, however, the United States had already reached its quota for German immigrants. They made plans to settle in the Dominican Republic instead… until fortuitously learning that the U.S. was still accepting Panamanian immigrants. And so, in 1941, the Marxes made their way to America after all. An uncle in Chicago had an apartment on Winthrop Avenue, just south of Bryn Mawr, ready and waiting for them.

Gunther went to Senn High School for two years to finish his education, which was interrupted by the Hitler movement, graduating in 1943. He then spent three years in the Army, assigned to an ordnance company that was stationed in India and then Burma.

“I paid my dues in the service,” said Marx, “And since then I’ve always been active in the community, I feel that this country gave me safe haven from the Holocaust, so this is my way of paying it back.”

Gunther remembers Edgewater as being a more gentile neighborhood when he first moved here. He used to enjoy walking up Winthrop and back down Kenmore Avenue, taking pleasure in just looking at the houses.

“There weren’t as many four-plus-ones back then,” he explained. “Homes were well-kept, some small, some two-story, some three-story, with nice gardens that were well maintained. On summer days we used to walk over to a small beach at the end of Bryn Mawr, where the Edgewater Beach Apartments are now, for a swim. The nice thing was that you could walk up the streets any time, day or night, without fear of being assaulted - and that meant a great deal. It didn’t take too long for me to acquire a number of new friends.”

Marx became interested in watch repair while in the Army; it was one of the services performed by his ordnance company. He studied watch repair under the GI Bill, then serviced watches for several jewelry stores in 1948, working in a small space on Granville Avenue shared with a friend. In late 1919, he ventured out on his own, taking over a small store on Broadway off the corner from Bryn Mawr. The store was owned by Bill Chosen, who had moved on because he couldn’t support two families, and Herb Wells, who was sick with heart trouble and finally died. Marx bought the store from Herb’s widow.

In 1953, Gunther moved his business into a larger store at 1125 W. Bryn Mawr, previously owned by fellow jeweler Ernest J. Samuelson. Mr. Samuelson had opened his first shop in Edgewater, right across the street from there, in 1901. At that time there was no “elevated,” just a horsedrawn “train” that went by. The storefront at 1125 was occupied by a real estate agency until approximately 1918-19, when Samuelson moved to the location, and has been a jewelry store ever since.

According to Marx: “Mr. Samuelson was pretty accomplished in watch repair. He was also an optometrist, examining patients in the store and selling eyeglasses. He didn’t have formal training like we demand today; he fell under the Grandfather Clause. But he did a very good job and people were really happy with him.

“Mr. Samuelson was a serious person and took quite an interest in the neighborhood. He dabbled in poetry and was active in his church. I believe he belonged to what is now the Edgewater Common Church and composed some literature for them. He had a little bungalow at Bryn Mawr and Ravenswood and lived there until he died. He wanted to retire in 1953 and kindly offered me terms generous enough so that I could afford to take over and pay him off in very short order.”

By the time Gunther took over Samuelson’s, many of the very wealthy people no longer shopped in the neighborhood, preferring the big, fancy stores downtown instead. His store became known mostly for its service, although sales were good enough to make the business a success. He established an excellent reputation, not only with his local customers, but within the jewelry industry itself. In the late 1980s, he added a separate name, Gem Boy of Chicago, to increase the commercial side of his business, but Gunther Marx Jewelry was always the name carried by his store.

Mr. Marx has always believed very strongly in the virtue of ethics in conducting a business. “Being honest with the customer is more important than anything else,” he stated. “I could never stand a salesperson who would say something to a customer that wasn’t 100 percent true. I wouldn’t stand for it. That’s been my motto and that’s what I live by.”

Unfortunately not all of Gunther’s “customers” were as honest as he. He was one of the victims of the Summerdale Scandal in the 1950s, when policemen acted as lookouts for burglars. It was a difficult time for shopkeepers until the situation got all straightened out. Marx looks at it his way: “When you deal with the public, you run into problems here and there; it cannot be avoided. Overall, I’d say my shop had a minimum of problems considering the many years we’ve been in business. We’ve tried to conduct our own business in a very ethical manner and that’s the way I feel everyone should be.”

Gunther extended his successful business philosophy of providing good service to the community at large. He joined the Edgewater Community Council shortly after it was established in 1960 and served on the Board for a number of years. Recognizing that neighborhood business had to compete with large shopping malls, over time he helped to found a series of Chambers of Commerce, first for Bryn Mawr, then Bryn Mawr and Broadway, then Bryn Mawr, Broadway and Ridge, and the final successor, the East Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, which he regards as the strongest of the lot.

For over 20 years, Marx was also active in the Kiwanis Club. For the better part of those years, he served as advisor to the Key Club at Senn High School, trying to give students an altruistic sense of citizenship.

“It’s given me a great deal of pleasure to work with the young people and see them succeed. Some of them come back just to say hello and I find out what’s happened to them. That’s something you can’t measure in dollars and cents. It just gives you satisfaction,” he explained.

In addition, he lent his time and energy to a small joint project at Truman College, using teachers from both Senn and Truman to make young people aware of the dangers of gang activity. As a businessman and Chamber of Commerce spokesman, he could effectively point out what happens to an area of stores that gets vandalized by gangs. He can’t say whether or not the program will have a positive impact, but maintains that “if we don’t talk about gang crime, we’ll certain never know.”

It is no wonder that the East Edgewater Chamber of Commerce graced him with their Pride of East Edgewater Award in 1994, for being an active participant in the community and for setting an excellent example of how a business should be run. His wife, son, daughter and six granddaughters were very proud.

Marx’s views on the present and future outlook for the Edgewater neighborhood are, not surprisingly, upbeat: “I believe things bottomed out a number of years ago already. But just as the neighborhood did not deteriorate overnight, it’s not going to blossom overnight either. It’s encouraging to see signs of both physical renewal and interest by various block clubs who feel it’s time to fight back, rather than cut and run like so many other people have done. I think the general surge to the suburbs has subsided.

“We’ll have a brighter outlook on Bryn Mawr once the old Walgreen’s building, located at the heart of the shopping district, is renovated. Bryn Mawr and Broadway, at the heart of Edgewater, is the gateway for people coming down Ridge from the suburbs. What they see on Bryn Mawr gives them an image of the whole area. When they see spruced up buildings and activity in newly remodeled stores, I feel they get a better impression.”

Edgewater still has a lot of halfway houses whose tenants sometimes solicit shoppers on the street and scare them away. But as Gunther points out, “I’ve seen derelicts on Michigan Avenue and it doesn’t keep people from running down there to do their shopping. I feel that, little by little, our neighborhood will be developed well enough to impress potential customers and overcome their fear.”

Marx considers the sprucing up of residential real estate equally important. As he sees it, “It’s a matter of people being willing to stand up and use their energy to keep up their property. You can’t have only good stores and poor quality buildings. It’s all got to work together.”

Newcomers to Edgewater, especially singles and immigrants, are attracted by its abundance of small apartments for rent at reasonable prices. Gunther notes that these people don’t have memories of dilapidated buildings before rehab; they form their good opinion of the neighborhood based on what they see in the here-and-now.

“This particular area,” Marx maintains, “has a great future. Of course, the big thing that ‘makes’ a neighborhood is not necessarily its buildings, but the people who live and work there. We are fortunate to have people who cared enough to form the Edgewater Community Council, which has been the focal point of renewal and revival. Great leaders. I’m happy to see so many good things going on.

“We have plenty of arts in Edgewater and I hope that continues to be pursued. We have a good neighbor in Loyola and we must encourage the University to keep moving south wherever possible, so that it becomes a firmer anchor in Edgewater as well as Rogers Park. The Islams hired a top architect to turn the former AKA building into a very fine temple and he did a wonderful job of beautifying the southeast corner of Rosemont and Broadway.

“Eventually the whole area just south of Devon, I think, will be renewed and receive a facelift as well. Right now it’s sort of deserted but I think that will change, given a little time. My interest, of course, has always been centered on Bryn Mawr, simply because that’s where I’ve made my living and so many good friends. Working six days a week, I probably spent more time on Bryn Mawr than in my own home!”

Marx cherishes the “small town” neighborliness he has experienced as a shopkeeper in Edgewater. “People come in just to say hello, even when they may not want to buy anything,” he says. “If you have merchants who don’t care or understand that concept, sooner or later they will have to leave.”

He searched a long time to find just the right buyer for his store, before turning over his business to Yury and Edward Tarnovsky. Remounting your precious stones in new designs is one of the specialties of the new owners, who continue the store’s tradition under the name of Irena’s Jewelry Co. True to form, before leaving, Gunther mailed postcards to his Edgewater customers to inform them of the ownership change, assuring them of the same courteous service to which they’d become accustomed and inviting them to come in and get acquainted.

In retirement, Gunther hopes to spend more time on his hobbies, like stamp collecting and, his biggest passion, gardening. While in business, he enjoyed spending his one day off per week during summertime in the peace of his backyard. Besides serving to “recharge his batteries,” he hopes his gardening acted as a little bit of inspiration for his Rogers Park neighbors, with whom he often shared his perennials. He’d also like to indulge this hobby by volunteering at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Marx recently revisited Germany on a trip to Mainz, his hometown, which suffered much destruction during World War II. “Eighty-some percent of the town had been rebuilt exactly as it had been, even down to the narrow streets,” he said. “It appeared amazingly familiar, but it’s like a strange place now.”

He was born in Mainz and has lived in Rogers Park since 1960. But it is Edgewater that Gunther Marx considers “home.”

Editor’s Notes: This article was based on a 1994 oral history interview by Gloria Evenson. A lot of revitalization has happened on Bryn Mawr since that interview with Mr. Marx. In 1995, Bryn Mawr, from the lakefront to Broadway, achieved landmark status as a National Historic District.

In 1997, streetscaping work began, adding wider sidewalks and historic lighting. With financial and other assistance from the city, Holsten Development purchased and is renovating the Bryn Mawr and Belle Shore Hotels (the Belle’s facade work is gorgeous!). Bryn Mawr Redevelopment, LLC, purchased the old Walgreen’s building on the southeast corner of Bryn Mawr and Winthrop and is completely rehabbing it for lease to commercial and retail tenants.

In 1998, the northwest corner of Ridge and Broadway was razed to make way for a new Walgreen’s with a drive-thru pharmacy. Working with the developers, Centrum Properties, as well as the 48th Ward Office, ECC and local block clubs, the Edgewater Development Corporation coordinated a four-month long process aimed at insuring the new store would be a positive addition to the neighborhood. The store, as well as the community-intensive process responsible for achieving the final design, may become prototypes for other retail development in Edgewater.

Good stores. Good houses. Good buildings. Good people… Sounds familiar. Looks like we’re polishing up exactly the facets jeweler Marx said would produce a sparkling future.