Clocking In: Antique clock shop owner offers a trip back in time

Zoey, a sweet rescue dog, greets guests entering Kappel’s Clock Shop as the soft ticking and woody aroma of history lulls customers back in time. In the background, the musical chimes of one newer clock play “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which seems to be the only connection to more recent times.

On display are hundreds of wooden clocks — grandfathers; grandmothers; granddaughters; wall clocks; federal, or “banjo,” clocks; and Civil War-era “Sambo” clocks that blink with every tick. The smell, the sounds, and the woods tell stories of days gone by in Madison and the rest of America — both the good and bad. 

“There are clocks, and then there are clocks,” insists clocksmith Scott Steel, as his boss, shop owner Karl Kappel, nods in agreement. Kappel, once a licensed goldsmith, opened the antique clock shop in 1973 after a lifelong fascination with timepieces. “A lot of people are excited by the mechanics,” Kappel says of old clocks. “I personally like the wood.” 

The two men have worked together for 13 years, long enough to complete each other’s sentences.

Time travel

In the shop, there’s a clock that originally hung in the lobby of the former Bank of Madison at 1 W. Main St. Another once graced the home of Halle Steensland, one of the founders of the Village of Maple Bluff. 

The largest clock in the store stands 11 feet, 7 inches tall and towers over the rest like a mighty oak. Built in 1787 for an observatory, it went to a Minnesota hotel and then a private collection in Iowa before Kappel purchased it 42 years ago. 

Across the room, a much smaller animated clock displays a tiny carved blacksmith whose arm strikes an anvil with each tick. 

There are no watches in this shop. No watch repairs. “Clocks and watches have nothing in common other than the fact that they both keep time,” says Kappel, who was just 15 when he found his first clock in the basement of a home his parents had just purchased. It now rests inside the oak-sized grandfather, as a reminder. “That’s what started the craziness,” Steel says later.

Kappel’s Clock Shop touts itself as the largest antique clock shop in the Midwest, and it wears that distinction with pride. Long ago, Kappel chose to eschew technological advances. 

He doesn’t own a computer (though the shop does have a simple Facebook page), and he still uses an ornate, mechanical — not electronic — cash register. Customers must pay by cash or check. No credit cards are allowed. 

“I still use a $3 adding machine,” he says, “because I can.” He believes in what he considers the old way of doing business, when you could count on people’s word, and while some customers might not be used to paying for four- or five-figure clocks with a personal check or cash, Kappel insists he hasn’t had a bad check in 40 years. 

In fact, he explains, the only time he went to court was when a car ran off the road and into the flower box in the front of the store. Now, that flower box is filled with a dump truck full of dirt plus a half-truck full of concrete blocks to protect the front of the store from wayward drivers.

Just then, the bells above the store door jingle as a customer walks in. Kappel stops the interview. “This is a cash customer,” he whispers as he rises out of his seat, “more important than any free advertising.” In about 20 minutes, the shop does about $2,000 in business.

Steel wanders over. “With Mr. Kappel, your word is good,” he reiterates in admiration. “Some people are comfortable with that. Others think it’s strange. These days, everyone wants to sell and make products look better online with pictures. In the clock business, you have to see it, and we have to service what we sell.”

He glances toward a tabletop antique clock on a display case. “That clock has buried many people, and it will bury more. Clocks make statements.”

Just don’t think of a clock as an investment, Kappel cautions when he returns. “I try to talk people out of buying antiques for an investment. They’re too hard for a private person to sell. People buy clocks because they remember clocks, and clocks are art.”

Steel agrees. “Really, nobody needs a clock anymore,” he says, alluding to current technology. “But this business is all about relationships and family heirlooms.”

Kappel owns all his inventory, and while the business hasn’t changed all that much in 40 years, sales volume has. “There was a real trend in new grandfather clocks in the 1980s,” Kappel says in his matter-of-fact way. “Those were the good old days for mechanical clocks and antiques. We did over double the business back then that we’re doing now. The whole key to business is overhead. This business was paid for years ago. Control your overhead.”

Repairs make up the bulk of the shop’s day-to-day routine, whether on antiques or newer clocks. Business is steady year-round from customers around the world. In fact, they’ve shipped clocks as far as Alaska and Australia.

Regulating history

One of Kappel’s favorite clocks, an astronomical regulator, was made in London in 1850. A regulator is a working clock built for observatories and laboratories and known for its precision. “They are all the same,” he explains. “About 6 feet tall so you can look right into the center.” This one has a live mercury pendulum that compensates for the temperature and barometric pressure, and its weights are perfectly measured to drop in specific increments every minute. “It only loses about five seconds every six months, and it’s over 150 years old!”

Like so many clocks in the store, it is priced in the thousands. Most need to be wound regularly, and on average, the store sells about three to four wind-ups to one battery clock. “These clocks are green, no batteries needed!” Steel adds.

As for the shop’s inventory, Kappel believes in the old pawn shop phrase, “There’s an ass for every saddle.”

“Sooner or later you’ll sell the clock,” he says. “Every once in a while I look around and think, ‘That clock’s been here for 20 years.’ A week later, someone comes in who’s been looking for it for 20 years.”

(Continued)

 

Kappel recalls one sale in the 1980s: “We’d just opened that day. I look up and here, through the front door, comes a guy in a long, white coat covered in blood, wearing boots.” Alarmed, Kappel asked if he could be of assistance. “‘Today’s my wife’s birthday,’ the man said. ‘I forgot. I need to buy a grandfather, but you need to deliver it.’” 

Kappel’s eyes light up as he recalls the unlikely sight of the man in the bloody coat peeling $100 bills out of his wallet to pay for his $2,500 purchase. The butcher, as it turned out, had not yet changed out of his work clothes. “That was a memorable sale.”

Customers receive handwritten receipts for their purchases, but not for repairs. “If you don’t trust me, don’t bring it in,” Kappel states plainly. “We stand by our work.” When repairs are completed, handwritten postcards are sent via snail mail. Handwritten.

It’s a style of business that will never change, so long as Kappel is around. “You have to wrap your head around how we do things,” he says. “People aren’t used to it and want to earn credit card points, but I couldn’t care less about their credit card points.”

Winding down?

Kappel has no plans to retire from the business and no succession plan in place. “I just enjoy coming to work every day,” he says. “I enjoy the people. We’re still profitable. You couldn’t start a business like this now. There’s too much overhead.

“I don’t worry about stuff I have no control over, like the day I can’t run my shop anymore. Everything will sell, whether for $1 or more. If I wanted, I could get real emotional.” 

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