A dragonfly zipped through the pre-lunch swelter.
It zipped by shuttered stores and tourists huddled around iPhone map apps, startled a young woman in short shorts and a jam-packed halter, licked between a rumbling Loop train above and a delivery van below to skim a construction worker jam-packing a grimy T-shirt near the chain link and tarp separating the dingy building and the street.
The building itself was old, crumbly and glorious. On the side aimed at Wabash, where front-facing terra cotta has gotten grimed by repeated passes of trains and cars and construction equipment over the past century-plus-three, a gaudy, flashing two-story sign from a 1990s rebrand that never quite took calls it the Jewelers Center.
On the side where the Chicago Style of architecture gives up the terra cotta pretense and just admits it’s brick all the way through, a dapple of oddly placed in-window air conditioners from various decades give a better clue to the Mallers Building’s guts.
The building is one of many on the stretch of Wabash called Jeweler’s Row. It’s seemingly another disappeared district, former merchants of a trade made way for panhandlers and chain restaurants where they sell calendars of their sexy kilted waitstaff.
Another sad story, goodbye. Another tale of loss and rage, uselessness and impotence in the face of your choice of American bugbear. Foreign trade killed it, or the policies of the political party you oppose. Online sales, declining marketplaces, anything to explain where the fine men and women of these trades disappeared to.
But here’s the secret: They’re still there.
It’s beautiful and grim inside the building the dragonfly zipped past. Stately and beautiful, but clearly not what it was. A textured and embellished elevator door had a hole in it, I guess where a workman decided to cut through rather than open panels. Maze hallways sometimes spilled onto grimy service elevators and open closets, which Would Not Have Passed a century-plus-three ago when service was king and everyone wore hats.
But my nonromantic Girl Friday and I strode past all that to head to our destination. My watch stopped and I got a guy.
My guy is a pleasant, funny old man on the 11th floor. I doubt we’ve traded 20 words, and he has no idea who I am. But the two times now my cherished Skagen Denmark has needed service — once for fit, Tuesday for battery replacement — I’ve headed to see Daniel Nowak, Certified Watchmaker of the 21st Century.
That’s the full and official title of the CW21 certification he has from the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. It’s a surprisingly technical and demanding process, with an 11-page description just outlining the skills, knowledge and professionalism a CW21 must have.
Nowak’s tiny shop sits amid other tradesmen’s. The 11th foor of the Mallers is, presumably, like the other 20. A corridor lined with storefronts of varying sizes, selling jewelry, watch repair, watch parts and tools, pearls, diamonds, gems, settings, design. Anything finicky and beautiful for the forearm down seemed represented in the halls.
Nowak’s watch repair shop is maybe seven feet wide, but extends back to the outer wall of the building. When he buzzes you past the outer door, you, two chairs and a table get about five feet before hitting a reception window and Dutch door blocking you from the workshop area.
You can see the watchmaker down the length of the shop, he and his clockwork work bench backlit by the window behind.
He comes forward, waving his hands and smiling, jeweler’s glass firmly planted in his eye like a techno-pirate’s patch. The woman who is sometimes there with them — his wife, the Yelp rumor mill has it — wasn’t there on Tuesday. So Nowak took my watch and a brief description, then headed back to his bench.
A few minutes later, he returned, quoted a ridiculously low price and handed me back my watch. He even set the time and date.
And… that’s it. That’s the story.
Daniel Nowak is a Certified Watchmaker, AWCI CW21, “Specialist in the Repair of High Grade Watches, Antique and Contemporary Timepieces” at 5 S. Wabash, Room 1108, available at (312) 372-2997 and DanielWatchRepair@gmail.com. (I figure if I’m getting nonconsensual storytelling out of him, I might as well promote his business.)
He runs a simple shop in an industry people might not think exists anymore. He’s one small storefront among many on one floor of one building of tradesmen hidden behind a street of chain restaurants and construction zones even the dragonflies zip past.
It’s where you take precious things.