Time does not miss a beat with Julius A. Searles, who sits at a workbench cluttered with tiny mainsprings, silver and gold watch cases and the delicate tools of his watch repair profession.
His shop, the Watch Clinic on the second floor of an office building at 805 G St. NW, takes a visitor back in time. The same narrow display cases have been in the store for more than 30 years. Along with the fading paint on the walls, they help perpetuate the feeling that the small business has been preserved in a time capsule.
Searles, 60, who has worked in the shop for more than 20 years, bought the business five years ago when the former owner, Abraham Rothbaum, died. The shop down a narrow halway at the end of a corridor, has a gold-leaf sign on the door that still carries Rothbaum's name.
Searles, the only repairman in the shop, draws much of his work from nearby jewelry stores. The workload, he says, is heavy and experienced help is hard to find.
Searles chose his profession after leaving the Army at the end of World War II. He said he discovered in 1946 that his honorable discharge did not necessarily mean he would get honorable treatment from whites.
"I went to my first job interview and before the guy asked me anything, he told me the job was taken. I felt like hell. I thought I was entitled to a better break than that. I had the knowledge -- I just wanted a chance."
So Searles worked in the Navy Annex wrapping packages until he could take a training course in watch repair at the Washington Technical Institute. One of his instructors found a job for him as an apprentice watch repairman. He worked briefly before returning home to Philadelphia for a couple of years. When he came back to Washington, he was hired by Rothbaum at $90 a week.
"Rothbaum gave me the job after he asked his five white watch repairmen if it was okay if he hired a black to work with them," Seales said.
Now, more than 20 years later, several of those men have died. Searles says one reason he continues to work is to prove to young blacks that hard labor and dedication does pay off.
Though his hours are long and he often has to borrow money at tax time, Searles said he would not trade what he does for anything else. "You could just say I am mechanically inclined," he observed.
And, according to one patron who came into the small store during the interview, Searles' work is "remarkable and not expensive."
His assistant, Edith L. Stein, said Searles often repairs watches for other firms, which, she says, "double" the prices when they give the watches back to the customers.
"He is really honest. I guess that is part of the reason I have worked with him so long. He often tells customers 'don't bother having this watch fixed, it is not worth it,' rather than trying to make a sale," she said.
Searles said one of the most unusual watches he has ever repaired was a "minute repeater," a pocketwatch that costs more than $5,000 and rings out minutes and hours like a grandfather clock.
Most of the time, however, Searles said he takes apart rusty pocketwatches and wristwatches that no longer keep time.
He rarely finds a watch that he cannot put together after he has dismantled it, he said.
"For the most part, you just have to remember how you took them apart. And most watches can be put together with a blindfold on -- just like I used to do with machine guns in the army. You just make a mental note."
The watch repairman said times have changed since the days when his shop repaired watches at a cost of only $5.95, including parts. Now the same job costs more than $40, he said. He added that the work has changed as well. Instead of letting a watch sit for 24 hours to determine if it is running too fast or too slow, he has a device that operates like an electrocardiogram, recording the beats of the watch and measuring its pace.
Despite the changes, Searles says, his trade is a dying profession. "You just can't get good help any more," he maintains. "These young fellows don't want to learn. They want $200 to $300 a week, but won't do $100-a-week work. I've had them in here."
Rather than hiring more "inexperienced" help, Searles said he prefers that his work be done right. "I'm a mechanic -- I don't just throw things together."