While he is deservedly proud of having operated a local retail treasure, Bernie Segaloff actually would prefer to have been doing something other than the job that consumed him for the past 45 years: running his family jewelry store.
When 2023 draws to an end, Segaloff will wrap up a near lifetime of work in his third-generation family business, Segaloff Jewelers, founded by his grandfather in 1946 and now scheduled to close.
Segaloff began working in the family operation at 11 years old, running errands for what was then a wholesale operation in the historic Jewelers Building on Washington Street in downtown Boston. The shop transitioned to retail and has been a fixture at 20 Chestnut St. since relocating to Needham in 1977. He has been at the helm since the late 1980s, and the business has generally thrived.
Yet for all the success, this was not what 20-year old Bernie Segaloff envisioned when he was attending Bentley College. He mused about possibly looking back at a career writing advertising jingles or following other passions. But, like his father before him, he found himself drawn into the business by a strong sense of familial obligation but little inherent interest.
“My mother was very involved in the business,” Bernie explained. “She passed away when I was in my second year at college and my dad pretty much fell apart.”
So he joined his father at the store while still carrying a full academic load at Bentley. “I never wanted this business,” he said. “But I didn’t have the heart to leave my dad.”
This loyalty and self-sacrifice was something of a family trait. “My father was a schoolteacher but my grandfather needed help so my father went into the business,” he said. “As he described to me many times, my father always hated the business. He was trapped in it.”
His father passed away when Bernie was in his late 20s. “I never gave it thought that I could have closed the business and pursued my dreams. It just never occurred to me that was an option.”
Instead, Segaloff was joined by his wife, Cheryl. She also had been otherwise engaged, working as a medical technologist. “When Bernie’s father passed away I came in to help him out. So I gave up my career to help him in the store.”
In 1981, he was preparing to do bench work with a blowtorch (“the old-school way of doing it”) when a faulty oxygen tank regulator caused a serious fire. “When I opened it, it exploded. I got first, second and third-degree burns and the building got pretty much gutted on the inside.”
The business had to close for a few months, but he soldiered — and soldered — on for more than 40 years until finally deciding to call it a career. “We just decided it was time for us to get a break and try and relax,” he said. “It’s not that business is bad or that I have to shut the door. Far from it.”
He has long insisted that his family’s established method of succession was not something he wanted to pass on to his twin daughters.
“I decided very early on that I would not repeat with my kids what my father did to me, trapping me in the business. I took the attitude of not encouraging them to come into the business. I wanted them to be in the corporate world where they had a life. They had vacations. They didn’t have to take everything home with them. Hence the reason there is no succession to us.”
While they have not ruled out selling the business, Bernie and Cheryl plan to actively clear out their inventory and will be offering one last bit of service with discounts up to 75% on remaining merchandise.
Once the business is settled, said Segaloff, “Our immediate goal is to literally do nothing.”
“We worked six days a week. We rarely took vacations. Never more than a week and hardly ever more than twice a year.
“I’ve never had time for hobbies. I’m a big volunteer person, so it’s very possible I’ll pick up some volunteer work. Maybe, we’ll find hobbies.”
“But not pickleball, though,” said Cheryl.
“Yeah,” Bernie agreed. “We usually do what other people don’t want to do.”