Meet Eugene: irrepressible, unsubsidized

Tuesday, October 20, 1998

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The sign said, "Breakfast at Tiffany's. Lunch at Reliable."

You need a lot of nerve to compare yourself to Tiffany's. I'd just been peering in their windows, looking at an array of umbrellas. The window next to the umbrellas was filled with rolled newspapers. The umbrellas and the newspapers were encircled by beautiful gold bracelets.

Subtle. Very subtle.

Tiffany's, of course, is nestled under the wing of our new Lazarus store, which is a lot like the old Lazarus store, except I can't find anything. Or anybody.

This is Fountain Place -- Fountain Square West in a grander life -- which comes to us by way of subsidies and years of haggling. Careers have been buried in the foundation of this corner.

Straightforward sales

At the other end of Vine Street -- next to a shoe repair store, that asks, "Do you need arch supports? We have them." -- is the establishment known as Reliable. We taxpayers did not spend a dime to lure the proprietor here, and the windows at 927 Vine St. leave no doubt as to what is sold inside.

Everything.

A pair of snow skis is propped next to a MacIntosh Plus computer, which is next to a Smith Corona word processor, which is next to a bunch of bicycle frames, next to luggage, next to a lamp.

Well, you get the idea.

Reliable Jewelry and Loan, est. 1908, is a pawn shop.

Eugene Spiegel took over the business from his father, who took it over from his father. Eugene wears a ponytail, desert boots with white socks and Bermuda shorts with a T-shirt promoting a bicycle race.

He has attitude to burn. Not to mention nerve. "Tiffany's? They'd probably like to have some of the stuff I have," he says. He pulls a calculator off one of the shelves to figure sales tax, leaning his elbow on a counter that displays Thunder Bars, "fast food for athletes."

Like I said, they sell a little of everything.

Saving the old stuff

And Eugene knows all about it. At least, I think he does. His favorite stock, it appears to me, is the stuff that isn't on display. People have to ask to see the estate jewelry and vintage watches.

I ask.

He shows me an exquisite platinum diamond ring and pushes aside a pile of drill bits to make room for a $6,000 gold and diamond piece. Next, he pulls out some beautifully detailed men's watches. His eye for quality, he says, came from his father. He started hanging around the store when he was 8 years old. That would be roughly 41 years ago.

"It's easy, really, to tell what's good. It's harder to tell what's fair."

He shows me an ad in the New York Times for a Patek Philippe Top Hat watch, which is priced at $12,500. "I sold something just like it for $4,000."

While we talk, Eugene fields a request from somebody who would like to sell him a tambourine and an "almost antique" pressure cooker. A customer telephones, wondering if the store has an alto saxophone. Yes. Also a tenor sax.

"I find solutions for people," he says. "That's what I do." He shows a camera to a man who is planning a vacation. "Get some film and shoot a roll first. This is a trip you're never going to take again," says Eugene Spiegel, philosopher and merchant.

I'm glad Tiffany's chose to locate a store here. I'm also proud that we have a Sak's and a Brooks Brothers and a Lazarus store. I like the Gap and the Nature Company, and I look forward to TJ Maxx.

But you can find them all someplace else. A mall. Another city. The world headquarters of Reliable Jewelry and Loans is in downtown Cincinnati. And it is one of a kind.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com, call 768-8393, or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and as a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Her new book, I Beg to Differ, a collection of her most popular commentaries and columns, is available at (800) 852-9332.

PULFER ARCHIVE