The hour strikes. Sound vanishes under a wall of noise. Bells, chimes, rings, dings, whistling cuckoos, and clanging grandfathers all drown the news anchor’s voice.
“You’d better know how to read lips, because you won’t hear a thing,” he says with a laugh.
Rowlee is a clocksmith. Now on the cusp of his 80th year, he began repairing clocks for fun at age 30. He was a career military man for 22 years in the Air Force. He has collected and repaired clocks across Germany and the U.S. The hobby became a profession after retirement. He opened Ye Olde Clock Shop in 1980.
Clocks of all kinds crowd his home. They fill his living area upstairs. They gather en masse in his basement. His workshop contains every imaginable, wind-able, tick-tocking timepiece: mantle, wall, cuckoo, grandfather, etc. More clocks occupy a renovated basement, and they empty into a private showroom where Rowlee stashes his collection of rare, antique German clocks.
Ye Olde Clock Shop’s current suburban locale might seem unusual. The shop was previously located in a 2,400-square-foot showroom in Papillion. The way Rowlee explains his shop’s 1997 relocation, it seems more like a pre-ordained coincidence.
The owner of an adjacent building had offered to buy his showroom. “My wife said, ‘Listen, when you get ready to sell this building 15 years down the road, there may not be any buyers,’ and that turned out to be a true thing,” he says. “It was a blessing in disguise.”
In retrospect, the premature building sale guaranteed that he would avoid the real estate bubble, which burst with the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. More importantly, he was able to remain close to his wife, his childhood sweetheart. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few years after his shop relocation.
Rowlee became her primary caregiver. She had a cane and would often knock on the floor for help. He would rush upstairs and take her to the hospital. She passed away in 2004. Ever since, Rowlee has continued working from home.
“The number of times I would have rushed home from Papillion to take her to the hospital, I would have had to sell the building anyway (if I had held onto it),” he says. “You never know what you believe in until somebody says, well, that’s a coincidence. It’s probably all laid out ahead of time, and this was just when it happened. So, I let it go at that.”
During his Air Force stint in Germany, he crisscrossed the country buying antique clocks. A new generation of Germans had become apathetic to the timepieces of their grandparents and great-grandparents, Rowlee says, so he found bargains from antique dealers and also picked up regular part-time work repairing clocks for export to America.
In recent years, Rowlee has watched U.S. interest dwindle for mechanical clocks. Nebraska Furniture Mart’s selection of wall clocks and grandfather clocks has grown sparse. Digital devices, smartphones, and computers have displaced demand.
Rowlee expects that declining demand for quality timepieces is part of a cyclical pattern. But he’s not too worried. His workload is already backlogged many weeks out.
“I stay so busy that I don’t know if I’ll have time to do anything else,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to catch up.”