Perfect timing

A young couple finds love at a Tulsa clock shop, then carries on the legacy of its founders.



Travis and Talitha Grether

When clock shop owners Harley and Mary Hunter lost their longtime friend and principal clock repairman, Ron Hillstrom, to cancer in 2011, they were devastated.

Their business was affected, too. “We just couldn’t keep up with demand,” Harley says.

Clock repair is “a rare occupation” — an artistry that cannot be learned quickly, he explains. Years of observation and training are required for even the most mechanically minded people to pick up on such a precise craft. (Good clock repair-people don’t even identify as such, Harley notes. They insist they are merely “tinkerers.”)

So replacing Hillstrom wasn’t as simple as placing a “help wanted” ad. In fact, the Hunters decided to retire and close Grandfather’s Clock Gallery and Clinic, the shop they’d founded in 1987.

Before they did, however, a 24-year-old UPS package handler and college student named Travis Grether walked into the shop at 3105 S. Winston Ave. and inquired about part-time work. Harley decided to hear the young man out.

“Within about 15 minutes, I found out he knew more than I did,” Harley says. “Mary and I were impressed by his knowledge of clocks, and we both knew we needed to give him a try.” So, the Hunters changed their minds about closing the longtime shop.

Giving Grether “a try” initially meant a few hours of work per week. But over the next few months the position grew to 20 hours, then full time with benefits. The job was such a good fit, Grether saw a career path and didn’t return to college.

Over the next six years, the clock shop not only survived; it thrived. Then, as if in return for its salvation, the shop granted Grether two gifts: first, business ownership and, then, love.

 

For everything, a season

Grether grew up watching his grandfather, a professional clock repairman in Porter, Oklahoma, work on hundreds of clocks, and eventually spent three years working for him part time. That day in 2011, Grether says he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do next and decided to look for clock repair jobs “on a whim.”

“He wrote down the three clock shops in Tulsa and, for some reason, came to ours first,” Harley recalls. “The rest is history.”

Six months after Grether came to work at the shop, Harley brought up the topic of succession. “I said, ‘You’ll know when you’re ready (to take over the business),’” Harley recalls. Five years later, in January 2017, Grether went from employee to proprietor.

Though they eased into retirement, the Hunters didn’t say goodbye to the shop they’d operated for three decades.

Harley still makes four to five house calls each week on the shop’s behalf to work on grandfather and other large clocks that are difficult to transport. Mary volunteers a few hours each week in the office, helping with bookkeeping and fine-tuning the shop’s inventory and repair database, which she developed herself.

Harley and Mary Hunter founded Grandfather’s Clock Gallery and Clinic in 1987. The shop is known for its expert service and repair, along with selling a wide variety of time pieces and accessories.

Lightning strikes twice

Horology — literally “the study of time,” which refers to making and repairing clocks and watches — is in many ways a dying art, the Hunters say. A main reason? Technology.

Quartz, or battery, clocks have grown in popularity over the years, the Hunters say, because they are more convenient. They are always accurate, and you don’t have to wind them, Mary explains.

Looking back further, the use of pocket watches peaked in the early 1900s, according to various sources. Then came the wristwatch, which for many was replaced by cell phones in the 2000s. Now, of course, there are “smart watches,” including the Apple Watch.

The younger generations’ accessibility to such technology has resulted in relatively few millennials with skills or interest in horology, and few trade schools still offer courses in clock and watch repair. Oklahoma State University-Institute of Technology, for example, is phasing out its Watchmaking and Microtechnology program.

Surely Grether was an anomaly.

Yet one day, a fresh-faced, 20-something woman dropped into the shop to ask the Hunters if she could spend some time there simply to “watch people repair clocks.”

“We thought it was odd, yes, but we thought it was odd when Travis came in,” Harley recalls. Who were they to begrudge the young woman a learning opportunity?

A fan of the steampunk genre of science fiction, Talitha Moser was particularly fascinated with the history of clockmaking and automatons, which are self-operating mechanical devices.

After a few weeks watching Grether and others repair clocks, Moser was hired part time at the shop, helping customers, testing and regulating clocks that had been repaired, and sorting parts. She took a public clock repair course developed by Grether, and the two began to work closely together.

Eventually sparks were flying — and not just from the workbench.

“(Talitha) was gorgeous and everything,” says Grether, with a faint blush. “I got to know her and just thought she was way out of my league.”

He was wrong, as it turns out, and the two began dating, with the Hunters’ blessing. Their engagement on Aug. 21, 2017, was a rarer moment than most; it took place during the Great American Solar Eclipse.

Grether took Moser on a road trip to Jefferson City, Missouri, which was in the eclipse’s path of totality. “There is a point at totality that is called the ‘Diamond Ring Effect,’” Grether says. “That’s when I asked her.”

The two were married in December 2017 in a ceremony that incorporated sand in an hourglass and the exchange of pocket watches. The symbolism was fitting.

“We fell in love with clocks first, then we fell in love,” Talitha says.

Clock repair is “a rare occupation” — an artistry that cannot be learned quickly, he explains. Years of observation and training are required for even the most mechanically minded people to pick up on such a precise craft. (Good clock repair-people don’t even identify as such, Harley notes. They insist they are merely “tinkerers.”)

Clockwork continues

Still newlyweds, the Grethers happily operate Grandfather’s Clock Gallery and Clinic six days a week. They have seven employees, counting Harley, and they’re taking some steps to modernize its marketing and social media presence, Talitha says.

Clocks remain their second love, and it’s not just a mechanical appreciation. They feel an emotional connection to their customers and the history behind their work.

In the shop, which also buys and sells clocks, watches and antiques, Talitha points to a 19th-century French statue clock. “This clock has seen families grow up,” she says. “It saw electricity come to homes.”

And then there’s the feeling of “working on something that has already been worked on 10 times over the past 200 years,” she adds.

She recounts some customers’ reactions when they find out their family clock can be repaired. “We’ve had people break down crying because they thought their family clock would never chime again, and it was like their father’s voice to them every hour,” she says.

Although the Grethers’ customers are mostly Baby Boomers and older, they say the pendulum is starting to swing younger, especially with the rising popularity of some types of vintage furniture and collectibles.

“(Clocks and watches are) something people don’t think about because it’s not mainstream right now, but we think it’s coming back,” Talitha says.

Until the trends catch up, the Grethers will bide their time and continue to appreciate the life the little shop has provided them. “The clock shop was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Travis says.

And though the Hunters founded and built the business for 30 years, they don’t take credit for the rest of the story.

“You know how love is,” Harley says. “We didn’t have a thing to do with that.”

 

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