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Magazine dubs Vancouver jewelry store America’s ‘coolest’

Erik Runyan Jewelers' downtown store takes first in annual INSTORE contest

By Anthony Macuk, Columbian business reporter
Published: July 25, 2019, 6:00am
7 Photos
Erik Runyan Jewelers moved its newest storefront at 501 Main St. in the Hudson building in 2016, and this week the store was named “America’s Coolest” by a jewelry industry magazine.
Erik Runyan Jewelers moved its newest storefront at 501 Main St. in the Hudson building in 2016, and this week the store was named “America’s Coolest” by a jewelry industry magazine. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Erik Runyan Jewelers took a big risk three years ago leaving its longtime downtown storefront on Washington Street to move to an untested home in the then-brand-new Hudson Building on Main Street.

But co-owner Erik Runyan says the decision has paid off — and the latest proof comes in the form of an award from jewelry industry publication INSTORE magazine, which announced this week that the shop at 501 Main St. ranked first in the publisher’s annual “America’s Coolest Stores” contest.

The store won in the “Big Cool” category for stores with six or more employees (Runyan has a staff of nine), and co-owners Erik and Leslie Runyan appeared on the cover of the magazine’s August issue alongside the winner of the “Small Cool” category.

“The store is the perfect expression of everything Erik and Leslie Runyan love,” INSTORE editor Eileen McClelland wrote in her introduction to the August issue.

Erik Runyan says he initially nominated the store for the contest in 2018 and didn’t win, but the magazine called him back this year and urged him to submit a new nomination. The winners were announced on Monday following what Erik Runyan describes as a 5-6 month evaluation period.

The award comes as a validation of the new storefront’s aesthetic, which Erik Runyan characterizes as a “soft rebrand” of his family’s century-old business.

The previous iteration of Erik Runyan Jewelers had operated at 900 Washington St. since 1991 and had a more traditional, formal design and atmosphere, which Erik Runyan says was nice but becoming dated.

The jewelry industry has changed a lot in the past century, particularly in the past 20 years. The family company began in an era when jewelers primarily competed with other independent stores, he says, but the rise of shopping malls in the 1980s prompted jewelers to take more of a “big box” approach — and in Runyan’s case, that even meant moving to a storefront in the mall during the 1980s.

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That period gave way to the modern internet era, he says. That shifted the strategy for Runyan and other independent jewelers to focusing on niche markets such as bridal and estate, as well as custom design work. It also meant the store needed to reinvent itself to emphasize its individuality.

Erik Runyan says he and Leslie spent several years running a low-key search for a new location, but they didn’t find the right place until the builders of the Hudson building urged them to check out the vacant ground floor space.

“It just took off,” Erik Runyan says.

The new storefront was an empty shell, giving the Runyans the chance to design it from the ground up. They decided to switch things up and emphasize their Pacific Northwest setting with prominent wood construction, increased natural lighting and the store’s design centerpiece: a wooden canoe that hangs upside down from the ceiling, serving as a chandelier and giving rise to a new store tagline: “under the canoe.”

The canoe establishes a nautical theme that extends to many of the store’s other features, including an inlaid wooden compass rose in the floor near the front entrance and a full-size wooden ship wheel, mounted on the wall with a bolt that allows it to spin.

Erik, Leslie and the other staff also changed their looks to fit with the new storefront, ditching suits and ties in favor of a more business casual wardrobe. Visitors to the new storefront are likely to be greeted by Rae, their friendly German shepherd who often comes with them to work.

In short: “Cool” was exactly what the Runyans were going for.

“Winning that award is recognition from the industry that there’s someone out there who’s taking an older company and trying to bring it into the modern world,” Erik Runyan says.

But even though the Hudson building storefront pushes the Runyan brand in a new direction, Erik Runyan says it also feels like the business has come full circle.

The family jewelry business dates back to 1917, and the store has gone through seven homes in a little over a century, moving all over Vancouver. But the latest move to the Hudson building actually brings the business closer to the original location where Erik’s great-grandfather opened the shop: 505 Main St.

The brick exterior and exposed-wood-and-metal interior design of the Hudson building is also closer to the look and feel of that original location, Erik Runyan says, and the same goes for couple’s open-walled loft offices that overlook the sales floor.

“What’s old is new again,” he says.

The Runyans have leaned further into the vintage imagery by tracking down and restoring a set of vintage wood display cabinets that Erik Runyan’s father originally acquired for a previous iteration of the store, and by prominently displaying the original store’s cash register and safe — now open and filled with jewelry cleaning products — near the main entrance.

Erik Runyan says he got confused feedback from friends when he announced the move, because the new site at the south end of downtown is seen as a more run-down area — but he says that perception is rapidly changing, and the store’s sales since the move prove it.

“It’s a really up and coming part of town — I’m a bit ahead of the curve,” he says. “We had our best year ever in 101 years last year.

Columbian business reporter