When giants fall, little people get squished.
The casualties are mounting around here – courtesy of the collapse of retail mammoth Montgomery Ward.
Trapped under the carcass: customers who paid for merchandise they can’t get and subcontractors who can’t get paid for the work they’ve done.
At this point, they’re starting to club each other.
In the main arena: Stephen Mahanes, 48, master jeweler, Wards subcontractor and owner of Bench Jeweler, located in the Cypress Point Shopping Center on Diamond Springs Road in Virginia Beach.
His opponents: dozens of angry Wards customers who accuse Mahanes of holding their jewelry hostage to pressure Wards to pay his labor bill.
The first lawsuit was filed Wednesday.
The first picket sign was hoisted Thursday.
The first threats were hurled weeks ago – shortly after Wards declared bankruptcy on Dec. 28 and left Mahanes holding 68 pieces of fine jewelry he’d worked on for the chain.
It was a gig he’d been handling for 12 years. People bought jewelry at Wards, then Wards would pay him to resize, clean or repair it. Mahanes said his paychecks didn’t always arrive promptly but that Wards was reliable. Sooner or later, the checks showed up.
None came in December. Mahanes kept working – finishing up the batch of now-disputed jewelry one day before Wards hit the rocks. Since then, he’s refused to release any of the pieces. They remain tucked inside a sealed bag and locked in his store safe.
“A lot of mad people have come in here,” Mahanes said. “They’ve cussed at me. Threatened to beat me up. Threatened to kill me. One tried to have me arrested for grand larceny. But I’m not changing my mind. I’m a victim here, too. I’m doing what I have to do to get paid, but no one seems to understand that.”
Samuel Hood doesn’t. The 52-year-old Norfolk security guard bought a $190 birthstone ring for his mother-in-law at the Janaf Wards, and he wants it back. He’s willing to pay 10 times the cost of the ring to make that happen.
“I told him it was crazy to hire a lawyer for something like this,” said Michael Goodove, Hood’s attorney, “but he just flipped open his checkbook and said it was the principle of the thing.”
The lawsuit, filed Feb. 7 in Norfolk General District Court, asks for the return of the ring, plus $2,000 in damages and legal fees. A hearing is scheduled for March 13. Both sides think they’ll win.
And then there’s Portsmouth’s Charlie Frye, 56. Frye planned to marry his sweetheart on board a cruise ship on Jan. 6. But Mahane wouldn’t hand over the $1,500 sparkler Frye had purchased to place on her finger.
Frye found himself with an upset fiancee and a postponed wedding.
“It’s enough to make a man mad, you know?” he said.
So Frye made himself a picket sign and headed to Bench Jewelers after work Thursday.
“I’ll keep this up as long as I have to,” he said. “My girlfriend says she’s not getting married without that ring.”
Wards says it has promised Mahanes enough money to cover the cost of his work on the captive jewelry if he’ll agree to return it to their customers.
Bankruptcy rules prevent the retailer from forking over the rest of what it owes Mahanes – $6,000, by his account.
Mahanes doesn’t trust the company: “I’d have to see the money first.”
Wards doesn’t understand why.
“Ninety-nine percent of our jewelers have been fine with this arrangement,” said Chuck Knittle, the company’s vice president of corporate communications.
Mahanes said he “feels bad” for the customers, but won’t give back their jewelry even if they pay for the work themselves – a compromise that’s been achieved at other jewelers.
“That’s just too risky,” he said. “I have no way of knowing if they’ve paid Wards in full. I could find myself in trouble with Wards.”
Mahanes’ lawyer is analyzing his position. In the meantime, Mahanes has been compiling a list of Wards customers who have been “decent” to him.
“When the stores close for good, I’ll call those customers and tell them to come get their jewelry. I won’t even charge them for my work.
“But the people who treated me like dirt, the ones who talked to me like I was some kind of animal, I’ll be sending their jewelry back to corporate headquarters.”