The life and times of a White Bear Ave. watchmaker


Bob Tuerk, the 79-year-old owner of House of Clocks on White Bear Avenue, has been on a nonstop grind since he was 14, and doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. (Solomon Gustavo/Review)

Succession was not in the cards for House of Clocks. 

The clock and repair shop, with dark brown grandfather clocks decorating its building, has been at the intersection of White Bear Avenue and Arlington Avenue East since 1975. Bob Tuerk, its fiercely independent and hardworking owner, has been there the whole time.

The plan, set around 2014, he says, was that he’d take on an apprentice, who would eventually take over the store. The guy bailed. 

“Nobody stays in it, nobody works as hard as I do,” says the 79-year-old.

Tuerk’s plan for the foreseeable future is to keep House of Clocks open and running into the online retail era, helping interested family members run the store, and, as always, keeping up his own hard work.

 

Work is work

Born in 1940, Tuerk grew up in Frogtown. His mother stayed home to raise him and his two siblings, while his father, a baker, got up at 2 a.m. each morning to hand-roll bread braids and make pastry contours. 

From the jump, life was hard for the young Tuerk. He contracted polio at 6 and was told he would never walk again. He caught scarlet fever shortly thereafter, requiring the entire family to be quarantined in the house. 

“There were milk crates stacked up against the door, up to the ceiling,” he remembers of their time trapped inside. 

Tuerk’s memory is blurry until he was back on his feet, defying mid-century medical knowledge, and causing juvenile mayhem. 

“I wasn’t the best kid,” he says, drowned in a sea of clocks in his deceptively large shop.

Saint Agnes School in St. Paul, the high school he attended for a year, asked him not to return for another. 

“So, I decided to go into a trade,” says Tuerk. “And I’m a watchmaker by trade.”

He picked up the passion tinkering at his uncle’s jewelry shop, and followed the desire to St. Paul Technical College.

“It used to be called the vocational school, now they call it a high tech deal, a college, you know,” says Tuerk, “That’s just to raise the price.”

Just 14 at the time, Tuerk was taking classes with older guys in their early 20s, many of whom had been brought back from the Korean War after losing a limb. The government paid for their trade schooling because they were deemed no longer able do manual labor. 

“That kind of straightened me out, it rang a bell,” says Tuerk, who then vowed to spend his life working hard. 

In fact, he had to — even then, before digital watches and smartphones, watch repair was a tough business to make money in right off the bat.

The near octogenarian often emphasizes that life is short, sometimes really short, and that competition and hard times never cease.

“Life is difficult,” he says. “You gotta fight for everything you do in it.”

 

Beside the trade

Starting out, Tuerk did some watch repair work, but he also picked up whatever side gigs he could.

His first was in a drugstore basement, working for 25 cents an hour sorting empty bottles of Dr. Pepper and Orange Crush. Then he moved upstairs, making 35 cents an hour racking wine bottles. 

That was by day — he worked nights as a manual pin-setter in a smokey bowling alley, dodging errant balls hurled by drunks. 

“Every pin I picked up I got a penny,” says Tuerk.

He says he wasn’t always successful at dodging balls or ricochet pins. “You had to keep an eye on that lane all the time, boy.”

He worked in construction, walking over a couple bouncing planks three stories up. The key to not falling, he notes, was not hesitating, or those planks might toss you right off. 

He also worked at a bakery, like his father. All the while he was plying his trade, repairing watches all over the metro, getting no more than three hours of sleep a night. As long as he was working, he was happy. 

“It doesn’t matter if you dig holes in the street, somebody has to do that job,” Tuerk says. “And if you like that job, being out in the air, being outside, you gotta respect that.”

 

 

House of Clocks

Tuerk was able to open House of Clocks with the money he’d saved, making a name for himself by transferring all of his trade work to his store. 

“My wife,” Tuerk says of the days after the store first opened, “bawled for three days.”

Their big plan was finally real, and they set out to live and raise their children on the savings leftover after buying the store, about $14,000 for two years.

The first week Tuerk took in $18. It was tough, but he had a vision. 

He was a big believer in advertising, purchasing notices in both of the Twin Cities daily newspapers, on radio stations and in phone books, branching out into other suburbs and Wisconsin.

All that advertising made an impression on people, such as a guy who recently came into the store.

“’I heard you on the radio not too long ago,’” Tuerk, with a beaming smile, recalls the guy saying. “Hell, that was 25 years ago! Don’t tell me that wasn’t too long ago. But that’s how it is.”

By the mid 1980s, business was booming. House of Clocks was shipping semi-truck loads of grandfather clocks. Sales were taking Tuerk all over the place, from pursuing cuckoo clocks in Germany to making house calls to mansions outfitted with two-story aquariums.

He took the boom time money and made some investments — some good, some not.

Tuerk’s saving ways have helped him weather the era of online sales and smartphone screens. House of Clocks still makes money on repairs, but Tuerk hasn’t taken a salary the last few years. He’s diversified what the store sells in recent times, too.

“I started with a scarf,” says Tuerk, pointing out that people in the 1950s, or the Depression era of his parents, only had enough clothes for maybe two outfits. An eternally nice way to stay warm and spruce up your look is a scarf. 

Now, there are full racks of clothing, as well as lamps and a few fireplaces for sale as well. 

Tuerk says to count on House of Clocks being there, on him still working hard. 

 

–Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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