Friedman’s Jewelers and Southeastern Armory is located in a new building at the corner of Alexander Drive and Washington Road. The light stone façade and contemporary style building stands out among the new developments. However, once through the door, the space opens up into a light and spacious foyer that branches off into a couple of other large rooms. Elegant but simple, warm and inviting, Friedman’s Jewelry and the Southeastern Armory is less intimidating and more enticing.
Back in the 1920s, when excessive consumerism was unheard of among the general populace, stores operated with the customer experience in mind. The customers were likely neighbors, known to the employees and possibly related in some fashion. This was the environment Friedman’s Jewelers was born into — neighbors serving neighbors.
Augusta isn’t like that. Or, put another way, Augustans aren’t like that. We enjoy the right kind of attention; eye contact, reassurance, a little conversation and familiarity are all valued components of Augusta’s locally grown businesses. We’re also fans of the unique — whether that be a shop dedicated to nuts, or a well-known jewelry store synonymous with a green box. Which is why the multifaceted Friedman’s and Southeastern Armory has already carved out its niche. There is nothing else like it in Augusta — or in Georgia. Or, indeed, anywhere else in the United States.
As Friedman’s Jewelers aged and developed beyond Augusta, the hometown store became known for its expertise and customer service. The business model was a huge success, and the Friedman family grew their brand to 125 strong by the time a competitor bought it in the l990s. When the brand came available for purchase, Donnie Thompson of Windsor Jewelers saw it as an opportunity to reclaim an Augusta tradition and Friedman’s reopened five years ago. However, things are not as they used to be.
“This is not your daddy’s Friedman’s,” said Manager Rick Wortley. “This is much, much more.”
Wortley has been with the current incarnation of Friedman’s for six weeks, and yet he’s been with the Friedman’s brand for decades. In fact, he is one of several current Friedman’s staff members who were employed by Friedman’s of years past.
After 42 years in the jewelry business, Wortley has been inspired to relocate from Savannah to Augusta in order to see Donnie Thompson’s vision come to fruition. His enthusiasm for what Friedman’s and the Armory is providing to the area is fueled by an appreciation for the multiple services the store provides — especially with its recent acquisition of United Loans and Firearms, another locally-owned, family-run business that was also rooted in customer-centric service.
In Windsor Jewelers, Donnie Thompson has already built one of the top five jewelry stores in the United States, but now he is focused on resurrecting Friedman’s because it, like him, was born and raised in Augusta.
“It’s an Augusta tradition. Donnie started out at Friedman’s, too,” explained Wortley. “Give us an opportunity to amaze you; we provide the same great service and the same amazing products as the old store, but now we are able to offer you other items and services as well. And, you’ll find the same attention to detail, kindness and quality throughout the entire store.”
As a customer, you have a choice of no fewer than four destinations within the store. In a single location, Friedman’s offers gold and firearms purchase and pawn, estate and unique jewelry, sterling silver pieces and accessories, collectables, new jewelry, precious stones and an armory with a vast inventory of firearms, utility knives, protective eyewear and much more.
The history of Friedman’s and its reputation for employing reliable, knowledgeable and friendly people seems to be ever-present. The genuine passion for creating an enjoyable experience and long-term relationships with its customers is palpable — you can see it in the smiles of everyone in the building and how comfortable they are with one another. These people enjoy what they do for the community and they respect everybody, especially their customers — a standard set by Mr. Friedman himself.
The familiar face of the new pawning service is Connie Wisnieski who, with her brother, ran United Loans and Firearms for more than 40 years. The move brought loyal customers to the new location, and opened another avenue of services — the ability to pawn quality gold and firearms, but with the customer in mind.
“We make short-term collateral loans. We hold the merchandise and it gets our customers through a short- term situation in which they need money, but don’t want to get a hit on their credit or bother with a bank loan.”
The pawn store is limited to gold jewelry and guns, but as Wisnieski points out she is concerned more about helping the customer than the collateral.
“We do save relationships. Money can cause conflict and we remove that conflict. But, I’ve been doing this for 40 years — we’re providing a service that is helping people.”
Wisnieski has had to transition to the new store, but she credits the staff of Friedman’s with relaxing into her new location. “It’s a family here — we get to know our customers, we work well together, and the environment is so welcoming. I have people who tell me they won’t go anywhere else. We take care of them.”
Another member of the family, Brenda Shannon, also got the call to rejoin Friedman’s when the new store opened. Brenda began her jewelry sales career at the Regency Mall location in the 1980s where Donnie Thompson was one of her managers, and attributes her success to working in a culture that encourages getting to know the customers’ needs, expectations and limits.
“When I heard what Donnie wanted to do I knew it was something I wanted to be part of — especially since people in Augusta know and trust the Friedman’s name — and I love it here. I love the fact working here has been like coming home.”
Two large showcase spaces are entirely devoted to jewelry — both new and estate — and the displays are designed to reflect the wide variety of pieces carried by Friedman’s. The range of pieces provides Brenda with an edge; her customers know she will find them exactly what they are looking for and at the price they are comfortable with, regardless of the occasion.
“We have a lot of guys coming in,” Shannon said, “We have more to offer men, such as watches and money clips, than any other specialty store in the area. Plus, there’s always the Armory in the back. But, Friedman’s is more than just a jewelry store — I think Donnie knows exactly what he’s doing.”
“We have a little bit of everything here — all of our products, the firearms and gift selection — and it’s a joy to work here,” Shannon explained. “And we’ve all been with Friedman’s for a long time, we know our customers and we know our products, so we can answer any questions that need answering.”
Treating the workplace as an extension of home is a theme that other members of the Friedman’s team echo almost verbatim. Brenda’s co- worker, Cherie Foster, was also asked to return after many years away from the store. She too feels the employees offer a better experience for the customer because the staff loves working together.
“The Friedman’s experience of the past was very different from the corporate world — it was locally owned and everybody who came into the store (in the past) was either friend or family. When Mr. and Mrs. Friedman came into the store they knew you by name, and at Christmas they would bring in fruit baskets for all of their employees. You really got that personal touch, and that’s missing so much in today’s corporate world.”
“I bring more than 30 years of experience in jewelry, and his father, who I lovingly called Mr. T., was my boss for years,” said Foster reflecting on her return. “I was the credit manager to start with, and Mr. T was a great man, and I loved working with him and for him. Being able to go back to my roots just felt like coming back home.”
Foster says the new version of Friedman’s is so customer-focused that everything in the store — from the product to the way the customer is treated — revolves around them. “It’s the best of both worlds,” she said, “The customer is getting the best possible service, and the best possible value and walking away with exactly what they wanted.”
Buying gifts for the men in our lives can sometimes be a challenge, but Friedman’s Jewelry and Southeastern Armory prides itself in its wide-ranging inventory and ample gift selection. In the jewelry departments, among the many rings, necklaces, and bracelets is an impressive selection of vintage wrist watches and pocket watches, birthstones, tie tacks and cuff links. The prices are equally varied, ranging from as little as $10 into the thousands. Pieces may be altered by the in-house jeweler, and re-sizing rings is free with your purchase.
Moving past the jewelry, Friedman’s and Southeastern Armory also offers one of the largest collection of firearms, utility knives and accessories in the United States. Brett Busbee oversees the department and stresses the knowledge and experience of his team, but he says they are primarily focused on responsibly serving whoever walks through the door.
“We like to say that when they come to Friedman’s and the Southeastern Armory that we can get them in and out of trouble all in the same trip,” Busbee joked. “If you want us to handle a shotgun wedding we can handle it all right here.”
The Armory is pretty much a sportsman’s paradise — collector knives, utility knives, thousands of hard-to-find firearms and an immense private collection of WWII German Lugars to top it off.
“It is a place for sportsmen and enthusiasts, but we know that sometimes what we sell might cause a few problems at home. And it’s not always the case that the guys are the ones buying the firearm. Some men like the jewelry, and some ladies like the firearms,” Busbee said. “But it definitely helps if you step out of here with something from the front after you purchase something from the back.”
The back is well-stocked, but ultimately safe and secure. Safety, of course, is paramount when it comes to buying guns. The store works closely with a handful of instructors, and enjoys close relationships with local law enforcement.
“Safety is our No. 1 thing. We have a well-educated and knowledgeable team — more than 30 years of experience between us — and we do not have a box store mentality,” Busbee explained. “We have specialists here; it’s not just work or a hobby, but something we are passionate about. We ask questions these big stores don’t always know to ask, or simply won’t ask.”
Carrying a firearm for protection is a topic that Busbee says is always a discussion he welcomes having with his customers. “We have one of the largest product selection in the area, from entry- level to top-shelf, tier one items, but we want our customers to understand their responsibility and provide them with the education they need to be responsible gun owners.”
Although they don’t manufacture the pieces, the Armory offers assembly and sighting in-house, as well as advising customers on care of firearms and the best possible accessories for their weapon. Busbee believes his customers are the most- informed customers in the CSRA, thanks to the attentive and courteous staff. Being able to develop these relationships also allows the staff to identify potential problems, or what Busbee calls “red flag situations” that may stop the sale of a weapon to a person not best suited for gun ownership.
“There are red flags, and we need to pay attention to the signals. It is part of our job to pick up on body language. While we are selling an inanimate object that cannot do anything by itself, we don’t want anyone buying from us with the intention of causing violence or harm. I’ve seen a lot of folks who shouldn’t even own a slingshot.”
In keeping with the rest of the store, the Armory also offers gifts and special items including collectable models, flasks, canes, pens, cleaning supplies, targets, food rations and more. It is an impressive selection, but the interchange between customers and staff at Friedman’s and Southeastern Armory makes the experience enjoyable.
“I’m not saying we’re running a local pub, but we do have regulars and we see some people return when we get a special item in,” Busbee explained. “There is a diversity among us and we are always seeing people from all walks of life, which is a huge learning experience. We learn as much from our customer base as we do from operating as professionals in the store.”