Horologist Greg Townsend rarely interacts with his customers--it's the objects he needs to see. The pieces of his interest aren't plants, or even horror movies, as many assume from his official title. Townsend is trained in the study of time.
Owner of LaCrosse Clock Repair, Townsend sits behind a small desk surrounded by a variety of clocks, tinkering with an heirloom piece a customer dropped off earlier in the week. The winder needed fixing, and Townsend is one of the two men in LaCrosse who can repair it.
Townsend started his career in clock restoration straight out of high school, but didn’t know at the time what his true passion was. In 1984, he went to Gem City College in Quincy, Ill., to learn the jewelry trade. But when he started the program, he realized jewelry making wasn’t what he thought it would be.
“I just couldn’t do it,” Townsend said, special magnifying glasses adorning his head. “The idea of breaking someone’s important family gems to fit into a mold and having to give them back sometimes in pieces didn’t feel right."
While at Gem City, Townsend met fellow students learning clock repair, and he decided to stay for two more years to learn the practice.
When he first started out in the business, many customers weren’t sure what to think of the young, 20-year-old clock repairman.
“I’m pretty sure I was the youngest clock restorer in Iowa,” Townsend said. “I’d show up to people’s homes and they’d be surprised I wasn’t the old man with wire-rimmed glasses they had expected. But when they could see I could fix their clocks, they’d call me back.”
Townsend moved to LaCrosse in 1986 and has been repairing, partially creating and restoring clocks for more than 20 years. Townsend said besides finding random surprises often wedged in clocks, like rocks, bugs and change, he enjoys the constant traveling, as sometimes clocks need to be picked up and brought to the store in order to be repaired. Townsend said he has traveled as far as Pennsylvania for a clock.
“The homes are really neat to see,” Townsend said. “They range from new construction to older period homes. It’s really neat to see the diversity and how the clocks match the homes.”
Townsend said at home, his own family owns just three clocks, and each has to have a special purpose to earn its place.
“Lots of people think of clocks as just telling time, but they are made like paintings,” Townsend said. “You can fill a wall with something different: functional art; a timekeeper.”
Many times customers bring in watches to the shop, but Townsend, who doesn’t repair them, points community members in the direction of a longtime friend and fellow LaCrosse Horologist Joe Leibert. On the other side of town, Leibert’s small clock repair shop is a much different store. Unlike LaCrosse Clock LLC, where customers are greeted with a grand showroom filled with a variety of styles of clocks, this shop is small, with antique cuckoo clocks hanging on the walls for sale; mantel clocks placed in the windowsill. Owner Joe Leibert stepped out from the back curtain, talking on the phone with a customer about a grandfather clock house call later that night.
“Antiquing is what I like to do,” Leibert said, as he sat down at his desk, unscrewing the back of a wristwatch. “Sometimes a clock comes in and it’s really sharp.”
Leibert said he was always interested in clocks as a kid. After finishing a clock program in Saint Paul, he apprenticed under an old German clock maker, and worked at a clock shop to pay for schooling. He opened his shop in LaCrosse--Clocks Off Main--in 1996, and now fixes between 300-400 clocks and watches a year.
“I kind of love them, but hate them sometimes,” Leibert said. “The outside of a clock looks wonderful. It’s the inside that has lots of responsibility and work.”
Leibert often works on aged clocks--some reaching 100 years old--and even repaired a piece dating back to the 1600s.
“There’s no one to turn to if I can’t figure them out,” Leibert said. “But I figure them out eventually.”
Leibert said, before wandering off to the back curtained room, he doesn’t know what the future holds, but he hopes to stay in business for many years to come.
“Ninety percent of what I do is keeping the memories alive,” Leibert said.