When asked how the community of Issaquah has changed over the years, Aubrey Aramaki nodded pensively as he poked his fork into some French toast. “Good question,” he said between bites.
He was having breakfast at the Issaquah Hilton Garden Inn hotel off Interstate 90, something he’s done many times before heading to open his eponymous clock shop in Gilman Village at 10 a.m. Many in Issaquah know his story, and his loyal customer base ranges all the way to Alaska and parts of Canada.
He’s operated the shop for nearly 50 years, specializing in the repairing and selling of antique clocks — “a dying industry,” he called it. But somehow, for the man who once earned the moniker, “Westinghouse of the antique clock world,” business is still thriving. In fact, Aubrey’s Clock Gallery has done so well over the years that Aramaki confessed he’s now running it mainly for the sake of serving the community, not for the necessity of turning a profit.
Aramaki, who said he is perpetually asked how he’s stayed in business, put it simply: “I’ve outlasted the others.” As every other clock shop owner in the area folded, his shop secured the residual market for antique clocks. A bold strategy to have bet on, but for Aramaki, the outcome was predictable.
“You know who’s going to remain, you know. And you can see the writing on the wall,” he said.
Though it’s easier to stay in business when you have all the business, Aramaki stressed that his continued commitment to customer service has been the deciding factor in his success.
Impeccable instincts for business help, too. In 1972, after his service in the Vietnam War, Aramaki found himself stuck in South Korea, living at a dingy hotel and stretching the favorable exchange rate for all he could; he had no prospects back in his home of Bellevue.
Aramaki had crossed paths with an antiques dealer who asked him to scout out rarities in South Korea and send them back to St. Louis. After purchasing an antique clock for seven US dollars and expecting to get nine back from the dealer, Aramaki said he was stupefied when he was wired $30,000 dollars. He could have gone back to America and bought a house, but he sensed there was more money to be made — an untapped market of sorts. He was right.
Japanese occupation of the peninsula decades earlier meant a diffusion of Japanese residents, bringing with them household belongings. Leftover clocks from that imperial era were viewed as junk by the majority of the local population, but to antiques dealers abroad, they were incredibly valuable.
Aramaki eventually brought his business acumen back to Washington when the overseas clock market dried up. That is the business back story that has been well-publicized over the years, but has 50 years of business left its impression on Aramaki?
“When I first started the business, I was so scared of making a mistake and the customer leaving. I could not afford to lose customers,” he said.
That was back when 90 percent of his business was retail, and 10 percent was service. Now, Aramaki’s business model has completely flipped (retail giants like Amazon may be swallowing more markets every day, but one thing they don’t do is set-up and repair). His storekeep style has also evolved over time.
“I’m at the age now where I can get away with stuff,” Aramaki said jokingly.
“A man came in and said, ‘I expect a senior discount,’ and I said, ‘Sir, for your age, I’m gonna have to penalize you — I’m going to charge you an extra 10 percent,’” Aramaki said. “I couldn’t get away with all of this when I was younger … The service comes with a little entertainment. They love it, they don’t know what to expect when I say this kind of stuff.”
A husband and wife armed with extensive internet research told Aramaki that “he has to do better” on his pricing, citing various online quotes. Aramaki calmly took out his calculator. “It’s listed as $3,200, but I think I could do $3,450.” The husband voiced his confusion, to which Aramaki repiled, “You told me I had to do better, and hey, if I get $3,450 on it, that’s the best I could do on the sale,” he said.
Age and success have allowed Aramaki to embrace a more laid back approach to business, but they’ve also spurred an ideological shift.
He juxtaposed his younger, profit-obsessed self with who he is today: a man willing to work with people experiencing hard times. While clocks have been his livelihood for decades, Aramaki asserted they’re nothing more than a commodity, and that “it’s not all about the money.”
Aramaki said he has even faced criticism from friends for some of his more lenient practices, but he refuses to relent.
“The store represents who I am,” he said. “People believe in that [saying], ‘seeing is believing,’ so when people see my store, they think ‘Aubrey is a good guy,’ or automatically the feeling is good.”
How much time is left for Aubrey’s Clock Gallery? Aramaki said he’ll revisit the issue whenever his latest group of part-time employees want to move on to other things.
Aramaki said he’s planning on writing two books about his experiences in the antique clock world, one fashioned like an autobiography, the other revealing his trade secrets.