Memories of I.W. Marks
Ken Hoffman remembers a Houston retail icon as his jewelry store closes forever
Local jewelry store I W Marks Jewelers is going out of business after nearly 50 years of slipping engagement rings on fiancees’ fingers and keeping Houstonians on time with luxury watches – and with its departure goes part of Houston culture.
I.W. (Irv) Marks, the store’s founder, passed away in 2008, with his son Brad taking over the business. But people still considered I.W. the soul of the franchise. His illuminated portrait adorned the front wall.
I.W. was a character, all right, well known to TV viewers and radio listeners for his seemingly constant commercials, charitable contributions, civic involvement and, at least to me, silly streak.
When Ken met Irv
I learned who I.W. Marks was soon after moving to Houston. I watched Houston Wrestling every Sunday morning on Channel 39. I saw those ridiculous commercials with promoter Paul Boesch showing his grotesquely puffy cauliflower ears wearing diamond earrings from I.W. Marks’ on Bellaire Boulevard.
"If I.W. Marks can make my ears look pretty, think what he can do for hers.”
The first time I met Marks, though, was after he bought the blue ribbon chickens at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo auction. He paid $30,000 or something for three winning cluckers. I made a little comment in the newspaper, saying Marks should have gone to Randalls’ because they had a sale on rotisserie chickens for only $4.99.
That’s when Marks called and said let’s have a little talk in his office at the store. I was buzzed in and escorted behind a mirrored door to a back room. Marks was sitting there, a bulldozer of a man with a huge barrel chest and deep imposing voice. He reigned behind a majestic desk and I sat before him in a kindergarten chair from story time at Mother Goose’s nursery school. Marks explained the charity nature of the Rodeo and how he was supporting future poultry farmers with his donation. He wasn’t actually buying a roast chicken for dinner. I told him that I was just joking but the lecture continued.
Yes sir, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again. Whatever you want to hear, I’ll say it.
That wasn’t the first time I paid the price for a stupid joke about a Houston icon. After I saw Marvin Zindler ranting and waving his arms on TV, I may have mentioned that he dressed like Huggy Bear, the streetwise snitch on Starsky and Hutch.
Features section secretary said, “Marvin Zindler on the phone for you.” That wasn’t a fun call. Zindler thought that Huggy Bear was a pimp and concluded that therefore I was calling Mrs. Zindler a prostitute. I’m serious. He was furious and there was no talking him down. I knew I should have gone with Orville Redenbacher and not Huggy Bear.
I smoothed things over with Marks and pretty soon he was calling me – come to the store, “I want to talk to talk with you.” It was always the same thing, “so what do you hear on the streets?”
You got the wrong guy, buddy. Ironically, maybe he thought I was Huggy Bear. He liked gossip, especially the private lives of local newscasters. At some point in the conversation, he’d run the same gag. He’d ask, “Tell me the truth, do you think my son Brad is an idiot?” Except he didn’t say “idiot.” I would answer, “He’s right behind me, right?” Every time.
Making friends through Kayfabe
There was the summer that I wrestled a few matches for Texas All-Star Wrestling at the Humble Bingo Hall. I usually asked friends and Houston personalities to accompany me to the ring as my trainer or cut man. I got Mattress Mack to do it. One week I had the Texas Hammer Jim Adler climb into the ring during my match and threaten to sue the fans as accomplices to a crime – my opponent choking me.
I.W. Marks did it. That night, my opponent was the evil, villainous English court Jester, who happened to be an I.W. Marks employee. The deal was, the Jester would attack me before the bell rang and beat the living hell out of me until I was unconscious. They brought a stretcher into the ring. While an imposter physician examined me, my lovely valet, a Hooters Girl, screamed in horror, “He’s dead!” Marks was one of the pallbearers who carried my lifeless body out of the ring, through the Humble crowd. A kid, about 12 years old, ran up to the stretcher, gave me the finger and yelled, “You suck!” I laughed so hard I almost fell off the stretcher.
Another time, Marks summoned me to the store, and wanted to know who the Houston Chronicle would hire to replace retiring gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger. I told him that I thought the paper wouldn’t hire anybody. I said that world doesn’t exist anymore. Who cares where wealthy people are going on vacation or where they had dinner last night?
Marks disagreed. He said, “People will always care about café society.” I had never heard that expression before – café society. I know about Barnaby’s Café (multiple locations in Houston), the salads are huge (so I’ve seen) and I like their French dip sandwiches and skinny fries.
Sometimes a store becomes so important or well known that it’s practically a landmark. In fact, when I gave directions to my house, I’d start with “go to I.W. Marks and make a right on Weslayan.”
Soon I.W. Marks jewelry store will be gone. Probably a chain something will move into the spot. And Houston will be a little less Texan and a little more everywhere else.