Photo: Courtesy of Steve Kivel
On weekday mornings, Steve Kivel catches the 4:59 train down from Westchester, arriving at Grand Central Terminal a little over a half hour later. But unlike most commuters, who then transfer to the subway or walk to work, he doesn’t leave the station.Kivel is the owner of Central Watch, a third-generation watch repair store located in the 45th Street Passageway of Grand Central. The store—basically five connected booths each about the depth of an arm span—will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary this spring and is the second oldest establishment in the terminal, after the Oyster Bar.
When Kivel’s grandfather opened shop in 1952, he took over one booth from a costume jeweler who found Grand Central too crowded. At that time, said Kivel, the 45th Street passageway offered one of the main exits out of the station. There was no Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building), no north-end access.
“When you were selling something in here, it wasn’t necessarily a great thing because there were so many people that you couldn’t see the windows, the merchandise,” Kivel told me in a recent interview.
Since then, the passageway traffic has thinned out and the display windows—advertising a variety of bands and watches—are easily visible. However, behind the counter at Central Watch, where Kivel spends most of his time, the booths have always been the same cramped size.
“I’ve been doing this so long that I don’t even notice I live in a submarine here,” said Kivel. “I’ve been coming in here since I’m in diapers, literally, so this is like my second home. I’ve spent probably more time here than anywhere else I’ve ever been.” (He told me he takes vitamin D.)
As he spoke, a group of watch repairers in the booth behind him were busy at work and the train rumbled above. “It’s fun when the big diesels pull in,” Kivel joked. “It just rattles this whole place.”
Kivel, 41, took over the business four years ago, when his father—who started full-time about 40 years ago after dropping out of law school—stepped down. “We like to say he’s half-retired,” Kivel said. He still comes down to the store.
“I’m pretty much the one who’s here full-time,” Kivel said, though he doesn’t repair watches much anymore (four trusted watch technicians work in his store). His sister lives in London and is “not affiliated with the business at all.”
I asked him if sales have been disrupted by the ubiquity of time: on our mobile phones, our computers, our televisions.
“Time is not the only function of a watch,” he explained. “A watch is a part of somebody’s wardrobe, a watch is a thing of status, almost like anything else that you may have and not necessarily need.”
Kivel owns about two dozen watches (not including the thousands he has for sale): inexpensive digital ones, modest brands, a few vintage Rolexes.
He wore a steel Rolex Milgauss during our conversation and said that the store is planning to give away a Rolex Submariner to promote the upcoming anniversary and to reward loyal customers. The store is, for some reason, very big in the law community, and the NFL is a corporate client.
At Central Watch, Kivel doesn’t sell a lot of brands (80 per cent of the business is in watch repair, he estimated). He feels strongly, though, about some higher-end makes, including Patek Philippe, Cartier, Vacheron, and especially Rolex, “because you can wear it.”
Kivel explained that it was his entrepreneurial spirit that got him into the business at the age of 21, after he had gone to college for two years.
“It wasn’t necessarily because I loved watches or retail,” he said. “I came in here because I love the atmosphere and working with family and the whole concept behind that.”
Kivel and his wife, who manages the store’s social media, have two girls, 7 and 9.
Does he want his daughters to keep the business in the family?
“I don’t envision them taking over,” he said. “Maybe their husband-to-be someday, a son-in-law of mine is a possibility.” He added, “I don’t want them working down here because, you know, it’s a really nice place to be, we have a really nice clientele, but it’s hard, it’s a way of life—any kind of retail business. Retail’s tough, and I don’t recommend that for anybody unless you have a true love for it, which is a different story.”
And how is business?
“Better than ever,” he said, knocking on the wooden desk to his side. Every day about two bins are filled with watches for repair estimates.
“I’ve never let somebody walk away here unhappy, ever,” said Kivel, “even if I have to lose at the end of the day. That goes a long way nowadays. I find it’s very hard for me to get that level of service with whoever I deal with, and that’s something that always bothers me, so I make sure that things are always done here looking out for my customers.”
Most people in retail would say that, but hearing him speak at his desk in this matchbox of an office, where he has spent most of his life, it feels like he’s telling the truth. Some customers have been coming for generations, since 1952.
“We’re working harder than ever, but it’s all for a good cause,” Kivel said, pointing behind my right shoulder to a wall of photos of his daughters.
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