written by Paul Holewa
“You really have no appreciation for how much glass is in your [jewelry] store until it’s all broken,” says Cullen Wulf, owner of AaLand Jewelers in Merrillville, IN.
The quote speaks volumes. Cullen, and many other US jewelers, took the brunt of public sentiment regarding perceived injustices of the nation’s law enforcement municipalities across the country. News coverage of riots, especially in major cities, was inescapable. On the evening of May 31, Cullen and millions of other Americans watched the news about major riots in Chicago that Saturday night.
Cullen took measured solace knowing his store was roughly 50 miles from the Windy City. But he would soon discover that even a lengthy commute around the bottom of Lake Michigan and across a state border wouldn’t distance Merrillville from the mayhem.
On the afternoon of the Chicago riots, Cullen and his staff closed and secured the store per usual. After an evening of glancing at headlines and reading selected news stories about riots in Chicago, Cullen tempered optimism with caution. He was hoping the Midwestern market of 35,000 people he serves would be spared. Then the call from the alarm company came the next day. Before the gut-wrenching call even began Cullen knew how the entire conversation would transpire.
“I wasn’t made aware of the potential riots in Merrillville until the Sunday when the break in occurred following the first really big Saturday evening riot in Chicago,” says Cullen. “When I was made aware the focus seemed to be on the Southlake Mall shopping area, which is about one-third of a mile down the road from us. Initial reaction of course was to go and protect the store. But in hindsight that could have easily made things worse with 16 total perpetrators.”
Merrillville police responded much like any law enforcement group would, by going to the Southlake Mall where there was a large concentration of people and property. The Mall received the lion’s share of police protection, according to Cullen. “So the mall didn’t suffer much damage.”
Neighboring businesses, like Cullen’s jewelry store, weren’t so lucky.
“The front doors were smashed with sledge hammers, the built-in wall cases were kicked in or smashed with crowbars, the bridal cases were smashed with crowbars and some tipped over,” says Cullen. “There was broken glass everywhere.”
Monday arrived and it was back to the business of being in business. Cullen and his staff had seen and heard about businesses close by that received similar treatment from rioters. The jewelry store was cleaned up, cases covered temporarily, and store visits were appointment only.
These were the immediate and obvious responses to the store damage. Next was inventory loss and repairing the display cases. Once again, broken glass proved to be quite menacing.
“Measuring for cases’ glass, doors, and such is relatively easy,” says Cullen. “But then it came time to assess what was lost inventory wise and what needed replacing. In many cases we had alloys that weren’t stolen, but were covered in microscopic shards of glass and were unusable. So then we had to connect with the various vendors to fill in the blanks of what we lost. My associate, Rhonda really spearheaded the organization and re-setting up the bridal cases, which was so helpful while I was juggling 100 other things to get things back on track.”
Postings of damaged businesses went from social media to mainstream media quickly. Cullen’s local paper the Northwest Indiana Times picked up on news of businesses impacted by the rioters which included an interview with his comments and reactions to what happened on that Sunday of mayhem.
Cullen’s store was later inundated with phone calls, emails and his cell phone with text messages of empathy. People even stopped by to offer condolences. The outpouring of community support not only lifted the hearts of Cullen and his staff, but also indicated to them that they had earned not just trust in business but friendship in need.
Whether it’s a home or retail business under assault, there’s a natural reaction to defend owned turf. Cullen instinctively knew, however, the rioters’ numbers and law of averages would more than likely translate into potential bodily harm, possibly death, if he defended his jewelry store. He decided to fight back the safest and best way possible, by resuming business as best he could without interruptions.
“Since we never officially closed we didn’t really miss a beat,” says Cullen. “But when we finally got everything together we sent emails, Facebook and Instagram postings, paid Google ads, and lots of personal phone calls to folks who had reached out to us to thank them and invite them back in. A big part of that was making them feel welcome and heard, so we let them guide the conversation.”
For Cullen and his staff, as well as the destruction rioters caused to the store, many customers were “outraged” and “sympathetic,” according to Cullen. Some customers’ comments were “pretty colorful,” Cullen added and not suitable for print. Such reactions leaned more toward support of the local business owners and law-abiding citizens than the rioters’ cause.
Retail jewelry business is far from “normal” for Cullen and his staff at present. In the immediate wake of the rioting in Merrillville, Cullen replaced broken glass with stronger, more secure glass. He has also installed additional security cameras, made a few staffing changes, and established an executable plan for any future unrest to protect people and store property.
First there was the COVID-19 mandated closure. Two weeks after the store re-opening the riots happened – an unfathomable double whammy. But, from a lot of bad can come some good.
“While the entire ordeal was a huge pain to go through, it catapulted our store name in front of tens of thousands of people who hadn’t heard of us before and business has been absolutely booming,” says Cullen. “May, June, and so far July have been absolutely banner months with massive increases over last year. Very happy so far.”
You can find Cullen Wulf and AaLand Diamond Jewelers on the web @ https://aalanddiamond.com/