Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ June 2012

Woodmoor Reminiscences

The Watch Pocket Still Going Strong After 42 Years

By Jacquie Bokow

The Watch Pocket was truly like a “pocket” when it opened at Woodmoor Center in March of 1970.  According to owner Matt Stohlman, 45, their original location was a “dry stairwell” which didn’t lead anywhere.  The Keller brothers, who owned Woodmoor Center at the time, had wanted to put a second level on the center but were prevented from doing so at that time by the County.  The small space — with the backside of a staircase rising up to the ceiling from the back wall — had no heat, no air conditioning, no running water, and no bathroom.

In the early 1960s, the space held Mike’s Watch Repair, then a “head shop,” which sold drug paraphernalia, in the late ’60s.  “Chester Keller didn’t think that was the proper thing” for that space, said Stohlman.  “We took over in 1970.”

The original owner was Matt’s dad, John Stohlman.  Matt worked off and on at the shop all through the ’80s when he was a teenager, then full-time since 1991.  John retired in 1999, but — soon bored — opened another shop in Mechanicsville, Md., in 2005, at which Matt also worked, splitting his time between the two stores.  John died in 2009 at the age of 78.  Father and son worked together more than 30 years.

The original Watch Pocket, next to the northern breezeway at Woodmoor Center, filled an unused stairwell.

“The most important advice I got from my dad,” said Matt, “was:  ‘When you own your own business, no one’s making you get up and go to work!  So enjoy what you do and you’ll be prosperous at it.’”

The shop moved to the arcade right as John retired in 1999, expanding from 151 square feet to 630 square feet, and had its own amenities like running water and HVAC.  From 1995 to 1997, the space housed Telebyte Solutions, a computer store; before that it held Nichelson Oldt & Heath Opticians [still in business as Nichelson Oldt Sittinger Opticians in Rockville].  “We’ve gone full circle,” quipped Stohlman, “as a new optician just moved into the Center.” [iGlasses opened in May.]

Matt Stohlman in his father’s original Watch Pocket about 1995 with frequent customer Mr. Patterson.  Notice the back side of the staircase extending into the room over his head.

Although Stohlman took a three-year course to become a horologist, “everything I learned I learned from my dad,” he said.  (Horology is the art of making clocks and watches.)  His father graduated from Peters School of Watchmaking in the District.  Later, when Matt was taking over more of the business, they took a course together at Zenith School of Technology [neither school now exists].  The duo were so much more knowledgeable than the professors that they ended up teaching the other students themselves.

Residents Remember

“Walking into The Watch Pocket 35 or 40 years ago was, even then, like stepping back into the 19th Century,” recalls Tom Otwell [formerly of Colesville Road, now living in Burnt Mills].  “By anyone’s standards, the shop was tiny; by stretching out his arms, a customer could almost touch both walls at the same time.  It was cluttered with the tools of the clockmaker/watch repairman’s trade — small screwdrivers and wrenches, springs of varying sizes, cog wheels and gears, sprockets, pulley mechanisms, mismatched clock hands and faces, and watch bands.  The walls were hung with clocks of all kinds, vintages, types, sizes, and varying states of disrepair.  Mercifully, none were set to chime the hours.

John Stohlman around 2005 in his new store in Mechanicsville, Md.  He retired in 1999 but got bored, so opened a new shop in that area.

“[John] Stohlman, the proprietor, was a large man and a heavy cigarette smoker.  The smoky haze and the owner’s size made the shop seem even smaller than it really was.  Stohlman was usually found perched on a stool behind the counter, glasses pushed up on his forehead and a jeweler’s loupe screwed into his eye the better to examine the inner works of the watch under repair.  Behind him was a little staircase leading upwards to who knew where.  The attic?  His bedroom?  A graveyard for old clocks?  Although I am delighted that his son, Matt, carries on The Watch Pocket tradition of excellent service in the ‘new’ shop in the Four Corners Arcade, the old place was a marvelous, friendly, anachronistic place and I miss it still.”

“After we moved to the neighborhood in 1979,” said Evelyn Jemionek [Margate Road], “[the man at] the Watch Pocket fixed my manually wound watch (the winding mechanism broke every couple of years) until he told me it would cost more to fix it than it was worth.  Several times he has evaluated watches and clocks belonging to non-local members of the family for the purpose of determining whether they were worth repairing.  (All would cost more to fix than their value.)

The Watch Pocket’s digs in the arcade are considerably roomier than its original space, allowing a greater variety of jewelry.

“All our watch batteries, watch bands, and two crystals are replaced there.  He had a crystal for a 30+ year old Seiko which is no longer made, saving us the cost of a custom made crystal or replacing the watch.  We have enjoyed his honesty and level of service for many years.  Recently in the store for a new battery, I noticed he has made several pieces of jewelry out of old mechanical watch parts; some are really lovely.”

Changing Times

Stohlman said about half the watches he repairs are quartz and half are mechanical, older watches.  Getting parts for older watches can be a problem.  “Twenty years ago there were 15 to 20 supply houses,” he said.  “Now there are two.” But nowadays he can look online for old, broken timepieces he can cannibalize for the parts he needs for repairs.  “eBay has changed my industry drastically,” he admitted.

Owner Matt Stohlman at his watch repair station in the larger shop adjacent the arcade — which features creature comforts missing from the original — where he’s been since 1999.

The genial Stohlman has plenty of stories.  He related a tale of students from Blair High School who have come in because their cell phones weren’t working and they needed to know the time, but the digital-age teens couldn’t read an analog clock on the wall.

He also told of an 97-year-old woman who brought in an old table clock which had belonged to her grandmother.  When Stohlman was able to repair it, she brought in a photo of herself as a three-year-old on that grandmother’s lap, with the clock on the table beside them.  She was thrilled to have it working again.  That’s what makes it all worthwhile for Stohlman.

“I enjoy the people, the stories, and the sentimental, emotional pieces of history you can bring back.”   ■

   © 2012 NFCCA  [Source:]