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Closing shop: McKay Diamonds owners look back on glittering past

SALT LAKE CITY — From a Main Street store so tiny he can stand in the middle and nearly touch both walls, Robert McKay has watched the rise and fall of two downtown malls, hemlines and foot traffic.

There's no such frenetic change inside McKay Diamonds, where the shopkeeper himself looks much as he did when he and his wife, Frances Ellen, made the one-block move from an even smaller location in 1952. Jewels and gems line the display cases on either side of an aisle the width of the door, below a wall of photos of young couples who bought engagement rings here.

His customers also are largely the same, a varied group of loyal individuals like Gene Maxwell, who wandered into 157 S. Main 38 years ago to look at an engagement ring and still comes back. Robert has sold watches and rings, diamonds and pearls not only to them, but to their children and grandchildren.

"I trust him," said Maxwell, who lives in Taylorsville but works downtown. "He's done a great job for us. And he's convenient."

Still, McKay Diamonds, an old-timer on a street dominated by young businesses, will not see its 62nd year. The McKays are calling it quits sometime next month. Robert is turning 90, Frances Ellen is 84, and they want to spend some time doing other things — work for their LDS faith, for example. All the construction downtown has slowed business enough to make this seem like the time to make a change, he said.

Not that construction's actually something new. Ask Robert to describe changes over the decades and he offers: "They've widened the street, narrowed the street, torn up the sidewalks. The Olympics were fun, (building) TRAX was a mess. And Gateway stole much of the foot traffic, but I think it's picking up again now."

He pauses. "I've spent my life on Main Street."

The McKays married in 1946, after a friend introduced them at the old Rainbow Room. He'd served a mission to Argentina for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then a stint in the Army in Okinawa. Both were University of Utah graduates. A fraternity buddy helped him land a job at O.C. Tanner. He worked there a year and while there became fascinated with diamonds.

The couple's first shop, opened in 1949, was the size of two closets and was tucked in a real estate office at 40 S. Main. ZCMI was thriving across the street, "but nobody would cross to see us," said Frances Ellen. When they got the chance to take over No. 157, which is now a couple of doors north of downtown's other remaining old business, Lamb's Cafe, they were enthralled by all the foot traffic — "people three and four abreast on the sidewalk," Robert said.

Their first inventory consisted of three men's and three ladies' watches, a dozen men's wedding rings and a half-dozen diamond ensembles. They filled out the display with watch bands. Over the decades, the synthetic pearls and rhinestone and crystal jewelry has given way to cultured pearls and precious stones and metals. Diamonds have always been the centerpiece.

The McKays worked side by side, always just the two of them, open six days a week. Their only real vacation came during the national bicentennial in 1976, when daughter Suzanne was Miss Utah, competing for Miss America. They closed shop for three weeks and went to the pageant. Then back to work, together, until Frances Ellen developed back problems around 2002. Surgery went well, but she started doing their bookkeeping at home at the kitchen table. Not long ago, he stopped working weekends and now opens the store just four days a week.

Soon, they'll be spending their days together again, just as they have most of their lives.

Frances Ellen said their story could have happened only in America. That occurred to her on a long-ago trip they took to England with Robert's father, David O. McKay, who was then president of the LDS Church.

"We saw workers who we were told could rise only so far in their company's hierarchy," she said. "That's when it dawned on me that only in American can two little people, with no (financial) stake, make it."

Her father-in-law, she said, worried because confidence was their only asset as they were getting started.

It turned out to be enough.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com