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VOL. 40 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 8, 2016

Ward-Potts owner swept away by retirement

End of 93-year-old family business

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Bill Sites conducts “the bittersweet” task of conducting his last day of business at his Ward-Potts Jewelers on Bandywood in Green Hills. Sites’ family has a rich legacy in the jewelry business that goes back to 1922 when his grandfather opened the first Sites Jewelers in Clarksville.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The sidewalk in front of Ward-Potts Jewelers on Bandywood Drive isn’t as clean today as it was a week or so ago.

That’s when Bill Sites, 65, began his last day as a full-time jeweler, ending his family’s 93-year run as the most-respected purveyors of baubles and such.

“When I started working with my grandfather and father, my first job was to sweep the sidewalk out in front of the store in Clarksville,” Bill says on the last day of his going-out-of-business – aka “I’m finally retiring” – sale at the store in Green Hills, where he carried forth the family business that began in 1922 as Sites Jewelers at 206 Franklin Street in downtown Clarksville.

“And I swept the sidewalk out front here today.”

I was visiting Bill because I had seen his TV commercials advertising what in essence was the end of a jewelry dynasty in Middle Tennessee with the closeout sale at his Ward-Potts in a retail strip tucked deeply into the heart of Green Hills here in Nashville.

Got to admit that when I first saw the pre-Christmas commercials, with the smiling jeweler, long-time friend and genuine nice guy beckoning folks to come for unheard-of deals as he prepared to retire, at least a part of my brain drifted back to cigarettes, Jack Nicholson and long talks inside the original Sites Jewelers on the Queen City of the Cumberland’s main downtown thoroughfare.

Cigarettes because Bill’s father, John Clifton Sites (who died in 2012 at age 89), and Bill always kept the door open in the spring and autumn, a friendly invitation to go on into Sites Jewelers and shoot the breeze over a smoke or two with Mr. Sites (I didn’t call him “John,” as he was mercantile mayor of downtown Clarksville, though I’ve always called his son by his first name.)

I don’t smoke any more. Haven’t for 15 years or so, but back then I was, like any true newspaperman, a tobacco enthusiast.

Since Mr. Sites also enjoyed his cigarettes, our conversations about local news and downtown doings included smoke-clouds of exclamation.

I was associate editor and columnist of The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper up there (long before it became a “no news is good news” part of the so-called “USA Today Network”), and often drifted into the store for conversation as I wandered the streets, seeking out friends and stories.

Mr. Sites was one of the city’s wise men (not “wise guys”) I’d visit to learn about the doings in what was for so long “my city.”

Bill tells me he remembers the sight of me and his pop smoking toward the rear of the glistening showroom.

“I didn’t smoke, but Dad did,” says Bill, who arrived full-time at the family jewelry store in 1973, one year before I began my 14½-year stint with The Leaf-Chronicle (and still-existent love affair with Clarksville.)

The reason for my mental reflection of those days, and the reason it still includes Jack Nicholson, is that back then there was an old movie theater – The Capitol – across Franklin Street from Sites Jewelers.

I purposely went to the last showing of “Chinatown,” the tale of hard-boiled and hard-smoking private eye Jake Gittes (Nicholson), because I’m a sucker for nostalgia and melancholia and wanted to be at the old-fashioned one-screen cinema’s last picture show.

The theater manager, a Mr. Johnny Harper if I remember his name correctly (a big “if”), gave me the movie’s poster from the display case by the ticket counter. Still got it along with the random trappings and mental clutter of a newspaperman’s life.

The closing of the theater was sort of a precursor to what was going to happen downtown as the age of box-store discount retailers began its damn-history rampage, pushing many of the so-called “little men” and their family businesses by the wayside.

When The Capitol marquee was dimmed that night, the brightest lights on Franklin Street were those across the street in the display windows of Sites.

Many of the other lights, from stores-turned-to-pigeon-roosts, had been long extinguished.

So what’s this have to do with Ward-Potts, the customer-first custom jeweler on Bandywood, and its closing last Wednesday evening? And how does a well-used broom figure in?

When Ward-Potts shut down, it was the end of the Sites family’s warm reign as jewel merchant royalty.

Sites Jewelers no longer exists, the downtown Clarksville store closed in the late 1990s to move out to the local mall and eventually to a free-standing store on Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. That store closed in 2012, the year Mr. Sites died.

By then Bill already had been selling custom jewelry in Green Hills for about eight years. “My son, Bill (William Clifton Sites Jr.), was in business with us in Clarksville, and we had known the owners of Ward-Potts for 30 years and we heard they wanted to retire,” Bill explains.

“So, in 2004 we decided it would be a great opportunity to have a second store in Nashville. My father (long-retired, but still trusted consigliere) thought it would be a good opportunity,” adds Bill.

For a few years Bill and his wife and business partner, Cyndi, commuted between stores, but eventually pinned their hopes on the Green Hills showplace.

“We liked the future in Nashville, and eventually, without having a family member living in Clarksville to take care of that store (Bill Jr. left the jewelry business after a decade), we knew it was not viable to keep it open. We could have done it with absentee management, but that’s not the way we work.”

Three years ago Sites Jewelers on Wilma Rudolph Boulevard was closed so Bill and Cyndi could focus on their newest store, which if Googled shows up in some places as “Sites Jewelers, Nashville TN.”

Ward-Potts exterior

-- Tim Ghianni| The Ledger

Even though the Sites owned Ward-Potts, there never was a so-named store in Nashville, despite the urging of advertising and promotions folks to get Bill to place “Sites Jewelers” above the 2160 Bandywood Drive door.

“Our marketing company said ‘Bill, you need to change the name of the Nashville store to Sites Jewelers’” in order to piggyback on ad dollars.

“We said ‘Sites Jewelers has no history in Nashville, and Ward-Potts has such a stellar reputation, we’re going to keep it Ward-Potts, and we’ll just have to advertise for two different jewelers,’” he says, adding that Ben Ward and Andrew Potts “are still great friends” and both continued as regulars after Bill bought their former store.

“What a great relationship we’ve had with them.”

Those two opened their store in 1978 and made their own marks as customer-service-driven jewelers until selling to the like-minded Sites in 2004.

So, the closing of Ward-Potts marks the final curtain in all but name for Sites Jewelers, founded by Clifton Groff Sites in 1922, in the same historic Franklin Street Building where Bill joined his dad and his grandfather back in the autumn of 1973.

“We were all there working side-by-side for about a year. My grandfather – who opened the store when he got done with World War I – passed in 1974,” says Bill.

C.G. Sites’ son, John Clifton Sites (my smoking buddy) also joined the company after returning from war.

“After he got out of the service, he was there (at the jewelry store) from then on. He had been a bombardier in a B-17 over Europe,” he says of his dad, a proud member of what my colleague Tom Brokaw nicknamed “The Greatest Generation” (most of whom, like Mr. Sites, now report to the General of Generals/King of Kings after their Heaven’s Gate dates with St. Pete.)

Bill remembers vividly the day he asked his dad if he could join the family business.

“I graduated in marketing from Austin Peay (the university a few blocks from the historic downtown store), and my first couple of years out of school were spent working with the Coca-Cola Company in Clarksville.

“I then decided it was time to think about the family business. I went to my father and said, ‘If you’ll have me, I’d love to work with you.’ He said he’d ‘love to have me.’ The rest is history,” adds Bill.

He began his first day sweeping the sidewalk out front before turning his full-time attention to making the bows for gift-wrapped packages.

But his role evolved, and he eventually became a certified gemologist, joining his dad’s trademark customer service. (C.G. Sites also was a watchmaker, but neither son nor grandson took on that role.)

Bill’s eyes glisten when describing a typical workday on Franklin Street. “My dad and I would arrive at work at 7:30 in the morning, prop the front door open to get some fresh air in there, and we’d go about the business of cleaning the store and getting it ready for that day’s business.”

Bill Sites and his wife Cyndi have worked side-by-side to make sure the Sites’ family tradition of personal service in the jewelry business continued.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

That foggy-morning (for Clarksville is on bluffs overlooking the Cumberland) open-door policy ended, though, when the insurance company said it would no longer cover Sites if the men kept operating in such a trusting and perhaps naïve manner.

The world had changed. Clarksville no longer was Mayberry. Stocking-capped desperadoes could easily take advantage of two gentlemen working with jewelry inside the unlocked (and sometimes wide-open) doors.

“One of my first jobs that I still have today was I’d take a broom and sweep the sidewalk in front of the store. Did that every morning downtown and got it ready for friends and customers to come in,” Bill explains.

As noted above, he continued that tradition right up until Dec. 30, 2015: The final day at Ward-Potts.

When he talks about that ending, he admits to a certain “bittersweet” feeling, mainly because he was leaving “the best part of the business: the customers,” some of whom were Clarksvillians who followed their trusted jeweler to Green Hills after the Wilma Rudolph Boulevard store was shuttered in 2012.

“I love what I do,” Bill says. “I love the people.”

He says that love of people is a trait traceable to his grandfather. “The first thing I noticed when I went to work with my father and my grandfather was the customer-service aspect of the business and the close relationships you develop because you are a member of a community, not someone brought in from outside to run a store. We developed strong ties with the community.”

From the Franklin Street storefront, he witnessed the painful, lingering death of downtown Clarksville. Like city centers nationwide, Clarksville’s was snuffed after the discount houses’ neon glow lighted the darkness at the edge of town.

Bill saw not only The Capitol close, but also he and his dad stubbornly dug in after other storefronts continued to succumb to the pigeons that eventually came through the broken front doors and windows to roost.

“It was depressing,” he says. “I can remember the men’s clothing stores there, an office supply store, all the attorneys, Parks Belk (department store) and several great ladies stores.”

Sites Jewelers vacated downtown Clarksville in the late 1990s – before the 1999 tornado pretty much demolished downtown and, in the process, set it up finally for what is ongoing renewal.

Bill worked at the Wilma Rudolph Boulevard store until purchasing Ward-Potts in 2004, opening the door to eventually closing Sites Jewelers and leaving his hometown.

“That was the hardest part. I was born and raised in Clarksville and Clarksville was home.”

Although he and Cyndi live in a Nashville condo, they return to Clarksville frequently to visit with Bill’s mother, Anne, and his son, Bill Jr., who left the jewelry business to work in the metals-recycling industry.

Ward-Potts Jewelers was in reality the last vestige of Sites Jewelers.

As I talk with Bill about that gem of a mercantile finale, I think to the night I walked out, depressed, from the ending of “Chinatown” (and The Capitol) and saw Sites’ brightly lighted storefront, a beacon of hope.

“I have got to tell you, as the time falls short, I keep on thinking about the relationships and the special moments in our customers’ lives we have been a part of,” Bill adds.

“It’s something for someone to come in and ask you for the special piece that will be important for an entire lifetime.”

He laughs and says, “I want to tell you a story” to illustrate the loyalty between customers and jewelers his grandfather and father initiated, fueling like sentiments for the third-generation jeweler.

“I was working with my dad one day (at the downtown Clarksville store), and one of his friends called and said ‘John, is your son, Bill, going to be working Saturday?’

“My dad said ‘Yes.’”

The man, Jack Marshall, a Montgomery County farmer, told Mr. Sites he was coming into town and wanted to buy something from Bill.

“Dad says ‘Jack, why do you want to buy something from Bill? I always help you.’

“Jack said, well, I bought my engagement ring from your father, I bought my 25th anniversary gift from you, and I want to buy my 50th anniversary gift to my wife from Bill.”

Bill doubtless swept the sidewalk before that farmer arrived.

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 0 0
MORTGAGES 0 0 0
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 0 0
BUILDING PERMITS 0 0 0
BANKRUPTCIES 0 0 0
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 0 0
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0