A STEP BACK IN TIME

December 1, 2013 | By More

Open the door to Herbert Horn’s Clock and Watch Shop in downtown Danville and you are immediately enveloped by the sound of hundreds of ticking clocks. It’s a gentle and busy hum. “Everyone talks about the sound

of the clocks here,” he laughs. “And I was never aware of it until I’d be off of work and call in on the telephone. What I heard on the other end really surprised me,” he smiles. It’s much like standing near a beehive, layers of ticking interrupted only by resonating bell tones as each clock chimes every quarter hour. 

The shop is tucked away next to a law office and an El Salvadorian restaurant. It’s narrow and cozy — the floor blanketed with maroon carpet, the walls a simple off-white. In this town of about 2,000 people, Mr. Horn’s shop is one of few downtown businesses still in operation. “I opened this shop in 1972,” he explains, “right after I retired from the military.”

It was Horn’s father who built this structure in the 1940s while working as a carpenter for local businessman, Perry Wiseman. Originally created for Shepherd’s Jewelers, the business operated a branch in the small downtown for decades. Everything from the dimensions, to the showcase windows, to the work desk made it a perfect fit for Horn’s needs. “I didn’t even have to change the signs when I moved in,” he laughs.

Horn’s father was born near Paris; his mother was born near Waltreak. They later settled in Danville, arriving by covered wagon when Herbert was only eighteen month old. Some years later, his dad found carpentry work for a ship building company on the Texas coast. But by the time Herbert was eleven-years-old the family was back in Danville.

“Population wise the town was smaller then,” explains Horn, recalling his boyhood in the community. “But we had a thriving little town. All the buildings were occupied—grocery stores and restaurants and dry goods stores. You name it, we had it up and down the street. It had that old country-like feel; everyone came to town and walked the sidewalks. It’s changed a lot,” he adds. Even as early as 1972, when Horn returned and took over the vacant building, the downtown was largely empty, he says.

As a young man Horn worked at the former Past Time Theatre in Danville as the motion picture projectionist. Later, he worked at the Yell County Record maintaining their presses and linotype machines. “All my life I have enjoyed working with anything small,” he explains.

Over the years he’s tinkered with typewriters, cameras, TVs, radios and household appliances of all varieties. “If I could take it apart, see how it came apart, I could get it together,” he says.

After high school he joined the Air Force where he worked in communications and became a high-speed CW operator reading Morse code. Later he retrained into the photo interpretation program and was sent to Vietnam where he learned to read and assess aerial photographs.

But he always knew he needed to learn a trade that would earn a living after his military days ended. “The only place I could go to work is with the intelligence system in D.C., and that wasn’t for me,” he explains. So he started taking correspondence courses in watch repair, completing one course after another and building his skill set. “I pulled a tour in Pakistan where the base commander asked me to bring all my tools and he turned over the base exchange watch repair concession to me,” Horn laughs, recalling the myriad of off-duty watch repair work he’s done around the world. “I just did this on my spare time all the way through the service.”

At the end of his twenty-year military career he signed on to something called “Project Transition,” completing a civilian-based internship. For the last six months of his time in the air force he worked at a clock shop in Austin, Texas learning the ins and outs of mechanical clock repair. Up until that point all his classes had been in watch repair, and he believed diversifying his skills was an asset. But the man in charge of the training assured Horn that he’d have to choose between the two. “You can’t go in the business and do clocks and watches,” the man advised. Laughing as he tells the story, Horn cuts his eyes around the shop.

“So I got out and opened this place. And I’ve been here 42 years doing watch and clock repair both.”

Watch and clock repair is meticulous work, requiring an immense amount of grit and an acute attention to details. “Patience is mostly what it is,” he explains. Horn walks behind his work desk to pull out a small sampling of pocket watch tools, including one about a 1⁄2 millimeter wide. “Now these are big tools to me,” he laughs. Using such tiny equipment requires magnifying headgear and a willingness to delve into the minutia, exploring what could be wrong with any one of the watches’ one hundred plus moving parts. “People come in and tell me what is wrong,” he explains. “Turns out ninety-percent of the time that is not what the trouble is,” he says, noting that for most people the inner working of their timepieces are a complete mystery. “They just hand you the watch or clock and say it’s not running,” he laughs. “Diagnosing this thing is kind of like an old doctor working on you. He’s got to look it over real good and decide what is bad and what is good.”

“It was very difficult at first,” he explains, as he speaks of the days spent learning his craft. “For example, I was showing you those balance staffs,” he explains, talking about one of the watch’s many moving parts. “First one I put in it took me eight hours to do it. Now, on average, it takes fifteen minutes,” he laughs. “People wonder how I can do it; they’ll tell me their hands shake too much,” he says, holding out his own hands as an example. “I shake, too. It’s just a matter of training. You get to where you can control it,” he adds.

Horn has worked on mechanical watches of all varieties and brands but says in the end they’re all similar. “Some people buy these thirty-thousand dollar Rolex and think there is nothing better than that,” he says. “But it’s just another watch to me. I don’t differentiate between the two. Rolex or Timex, what’s the difference? They’re just supposed to maintain time,” he says, smiling.

As we continue our visit an older man comes in the door and the two talk about the weather while the man takes off his watch and lays it down on the counter, asking if Mr. Horn can adjust the calendar function to the correct date. Within seconds Horn addresses the problem and hands the watch back to the customer. “What do I owe you?” the man asks, adjusting the watch on his arm. “You don’t owe me anything,” Horn insists.” The man tries to pay him again, but Horn refuses while teasing, “Wait till it breaks and then I’ll get you.”

Horn’s store is a rare breed these days. “This is a worn out field anymore. There’s very few of us that do it,” he says. “The ones that do it now are usually employed by the big watch companies to do their warranty repair and their servicing,” he explains. Still, the shop keeps him busy and he offers his services at affordable prices. He’s open five days a week, and just since this morning he’s repaired four watches that were mailed in from Little Rock. He points to a stack of packages. “As you can see I have clocks lined up against the wall I haven’t gotten to yet. I get work from all over.”

Horn’s shop is also home to small collection of antique clocks for sale, many of which he finds on Ebay and then repairs. The oldest one currently in stock is about 120 years old. A selection of modern pocket watches catch the light inside a display case and a row of antique pocket watches dating from 1905-1942 hide behind the counter. The newest of these is what he calls a “railroad watch.” It was given that name, he explains, because of the “number of jewels and the amount of factory finishing they did for accuracy.” But these days people mostly buy electronics, he says. And electronic watches aren’t meant to be repaired.

“There’s nothing you can do for the electronics but to replace them,” he explains. “They’re nothing but a miniature computer sealed in a little capsule.” He walks behind the counter toward a cabinet. “I’ll show you why we old watch makers can’t repair electronic watches,” he says, opening up one of the many drawers filled with tiny parts. He pulls out a watch movement for a modern timepiece. “See that thing is all plastic, and it’s held together by these little metal strips. They’re put on there and the plastic is melted over it to keep it together,” he explains, tapping the watch with a tiny pair of tweezers. There’s no fixing a broken movement on an electronic watch. It just goes in the trash. “Still they’re dirt cheap,” he adds. “I can replace the whole movement for fifteen dollars.”

Horn says it’s sad to see all the old shops close. But while the shops may be dying out, and the supply companies going out of business, the craft remains alive in the hands of a few individuals. Horn belongs to the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. Instead of opening up shops, members tend to operate out of their homes. (In the organization’s most recent newsletter he noticed a man from Russellville had recently joined). And even though Horn prefers the problem solving and the intricacy of mechanical watches, he finds plenty of work in the world of electronic watches.

A few minutes later another customer comes in. She and Mr. Horn exchange hellos as she walks to the counter. She carries a small bag filled with 15 electronic watches. They’re her daughters, and the batteries aren’t running. She asks if he can replace them. He lays them out on the table, a diverse collection of colors and shapes. He says he can have them all running in about an hour, and she makes a plan to return after lunch.

We’re finishing up our visit when the noon hour strikes and the store full of clocks begin their mid-day chiming. Unlike digital devices, each mechanical clock has a life of its own, filling the room with ringing bells chiming in dizzying succession. Together they create a cacophonous sound that is disorienting as well as beautiful. Spending his days with them, Mr. Horn knows the sound each clock makes, and points to one of the older mantle clocks on the wall. “I think this is the prettiest one,” he says, reaching his hand in to set the clock back a few minutes so we can hear it chime again.  

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