Lifelong watch repairman starts winding things down

As he has for years, Ed Weintraut peers through a loupe in his right eye to tackle a watch problem in his shop at 735 Walnut St.
As he has for years, Ed Weintraut peers through a loupe in his right eye to tackle a watch problem in his shop at 735 Walnut St. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 12, 2013

How could such a decision, decades in the making, so carefully considered, come down to this?

A sharp twinge of regret, a photograph not taken, an entire spare bedroom of tiny watch parts, a lifetime at the watchmaker's bench, sold and trucked off to New Hampshire? And no photo!

That's the way it went for Ed Weintraut, and that's the way it goes. At his age - a week shy of 85 - life cannot always be lived with the precision the watchmaker has prided himself on for 69 years.

And though the man whose name has graced the sign - Ed (horizontal) Weintraut (vertical) - still comes in to work at 735 Walnut St. six days a week, as he has since 1955, driving in from Cherry Hill in the Grand Marquis, and though his chiseled hands are as steady as a young man's, his eyes still sharp, there can be no denying what lies ahead.

Weintraut the watchmaker, once known as the boy jeweler, is winding things down.

The first step was unloading the contents of the spare bedroom. He had kept the New Hampshire man's ad seeking watch parts for 15 years before calling him a few weeks ago. The man came with a rented truck.

"In my mind, I had to make the decision," he said. "My greatest mistake was I didn't take pictures."

The room not photographed was loaded with narrow drawers of endless springs, screws, crystals, coils, and other parts. It was where over the years he brought home 40,000 watches to repair at night, because who can get much done in the store, with customers, the phone ringing, time flying.

Weintraut taught himself the trade at age 16, honed it in the 82d Airborne at Fort Bragg. Started at a job in Germantown, moved to Walnut Street in 1955. Seven decades of fitting the loupe, a small magnifier, into the right eye have resulted in a face with one eye larger than the other.

Yes, time flies. Or does it? Weintraut keeps scrap books that chart the demise of cohorts on the Row, either by death (obit), scandal (news story), or liquidation (photograph). Israel Swift, Harry Kuperstein, Norman Kivitz, Sydney Rosen, all come and gone.

"It's sort of in the blood," the low-key but sardonic Weintraut says of his bench longevity, never mind the stroke and being hit by a car. "I'm needed."

The day itself goes by quickly, not too much small talk with 56-year-old Robert (one of his five children) who saves his extroverted side for the Jersey bars where his rock band, Sordid Past, plays. Background music is interrupted on the hour by an ocean clock that sounds more like a car dragging a muffler on Walnut Street.

But when he gets a moment to practice the art, to focus on the watches, you see how time melts away. You see glimpses of that Tom Hanks look-alike with the crooked smile in the 82d Airborne photograph as he fits the loupe into the right eye and takes his place behind the bench.

The fingers - muscular and flexible, each capable of winding and twisting, holding, and steadying - show no trace of a shake. The focus sets in, the lips start to pucker in and out, stilling any distraction.

Perhaps the lips pucker in time to the second hands that have circled before him for 69 years. He stops. All the precise movements and watchmaker intuition aren't going to undo the super glue the customer put around the Rolex crystal. Into the glue-busting ultrasonic machine it goes.

The 40,000 watches he repaired all became reliable timekeepers (if wound).

It was life that kept its tricks of time: a brain-damaged daughter who doctors predicted at birth wouldn't live more than a year or two, now 44; his wife, now marking time in a nursing home, scooting herself in a wheelchair up and down the hallway, chewing up the family savings at $9,800 a month.

He didn't think she'd live a year, but it's been three. He's there every evening.

Weintraut - a German and Pennsylvania Dutch descendant, not Jewish as his name suggests, though he's picked up 20 dirty Yiddish phrases to keep pace with the trade - knows his is a lost art.

People bring stopped watches they don't realize just have to be wound. Who wears a pocket watch? (He's got trays and trays of them).

"I would have to do this every day?" one woman asks of her late husband's wind-up watch, which Weintraut has handed back to her.

"Or you can just call me for the time," he says.

The even-tempered, steady-handed Weintraut is not at all sure of the next generation of watchmaker. Like Isaac Albiter, over on Sansom Street, sitting at the bench, his back to the counter, yelling into the phone in Russian all day long. (He's got, Albiter says, no time to talk.)

The watches still come in broken, rusted, stuck with super glue, or just needing to be wound. Weintraut fixes them all, just as he always did.

But at home, the bare room prevents any illusions that time has stood still. "That was the deal, take everything," he said. "It was organized like a supply house. Crystals and mainsprings and parts. It was my whole life. I didn't want to lose it."


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2682, arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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