Walk into Benold’s Jewelers on Anderson Lane, and the first thing you’ll notice will likely be a warm conversation between customers and employees – unless, of course, your eye is caught first by the beautiful displays of fine jewelry. There’s a lot to ooh and ahh at as soon as you walk in the door, and that’s one reason Austinites have been shopping at Benold’s since the 1920’s. Another is its warm atmosphere.
It’s not unusual for customers to drop in just to say hello to Milton Doolittle, Benold’s owner, or to Tux, the stately standard poodle who spends time in the store and is a sucker for a good ear rub.
Doolittle has been part of Benold’s since 1983, when he started working there as an employee. And while there’s young blood on staff, Benold’s has plenty of employees who, like Doolittle, have been there for decades. One of the perks of the job is sometimes getting to sell wedding rings to the children of Benold’s customers who themselves got their wedding rings there years before.
“Benold’s is indeed a true local business,” Doolittle says. “The store was established almost a hundred years ago [in 1929] right here in Austin. And we’ve carried on that tradition until this day.”
The store takes being local seriously, has always supported a wide range of arts organizations in Austin including Austin Lyric Opera, the Austin Symphony, ZACH Theater, and Ballet Austin. Outside of the arts, the store has also supported organizations that are important to Doolittle personally: Animal Trustees of Austin, A World for Children, AIDS Services of Austin, Hospice Austin, and AFAB Austin.
Doolittle himself didn’t set out to be in the fine jewelry business, but once he got there he knew it was a good fit. Raised in Lake Jackson, near Galveston, he came to Austin to attend the University of Texas as an undergraduate, and then to begin law school at UT. After his first year of law school the Army drafted Doolittle, and because of his law school background he served as an assistant in the adjutant’s office in Fort Bliss, helping to prosecute court martial cases.
When he returned he knew law wasn’t the he wanted to pursue, and he got a job in the fine jewelry department of the Sakowitz Department store in Houston.
“I just needed a job, and retail was an easy profession to get into,” Doolittle recalls. “I was lucky to get into a primo retail situation, working with Sakowitz and with fine jewelry. The whole prospect of working with fine jewelry is working with beautiful things, and working with only happy occasions in someone’s life. Let’s face it, you don’t give someone a piece of jewelry because you don’t like them. There’s always love, and a positive energy that goes behind a gift of jewelry. That appealed to me big time.
“Plus, there’s a sense of everlasting beauty with jewelry. Most of the gold that’s around today has been in existence since the beginning of time, and has been used in jewelry for centuries and centuries. You don’t throw gold away. It’s always refined, and refined again, into other pieces of jewelry.”
Doolittle worked for Sakowitz, Neiman Marcus, and helped open a Cartier boutique in Kansas City, and then In 1983 Doolittle’s brother encouraged him to move back to Austin. He took the advice and came back. That’s when he found Benold’s, which was at the time still owned by the family that had opened it in the 1920’s. Doolittle began working there in 1983, and purchased the business in 2006.
Austin is also where he met his partner of 21 years, Jim Bob McMillan, who is deputy director of the Texas Commission on the Arts.
Benold’s welcomes everybody and anybody who walks into the store with open arms, Doolittle likes to say, and that includes couples getting jewelry for commitment ceremonies.
“Not that I wear being gay on my shoulder, but I certainly don’t hide it from anybody,” Doolittle says. “I think it has opened doors of understanding for my staff that may not have been there without me. And I’m just very grateful that I’ve been able to contribute to that awareness, and I think that has made a difference in our overall view to the gay community in Austin and how welcoming we are to that group and this community.”
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