GENEVA – At The Little Traveler in Geneva, people line up to see if the Crystal Fixer can repair their precious items.
Nancy Grossman of St. Charles brought in a glass necklace that fell and broke into a few pieces.
“[The Crystal Fixer] was recommended by State Street Jewelers because they couldn’t fix it,” Grossman said.
Margaret Nickerson of Sugar Grove brought in a wineglass memento of a recent trip to France that broke on the way home.
Terri Setliff of Naperville dropped off two Waterford glasses and a Lenox wine decanter with nicked edges.
How did that happen?
“Washing them in the sink,” Setliff said.
Paula von Ende of DeKalb brought in crystal wine glasses and a porcelain springer spaniel with a broken back leg.
“It’s very important to my husband,” von Ende said of the spaniel figurine. “When he was a child, they had a springer spaniel named Ginger.”
Mary Lou Gates of Mary Lou’s Crystal Repair in Joliet is the Crystal Fixer, the woman who does the careful work of crystal repair.
Gates has done repairs for 55 years – 40 of them at The Little Traveler – working her magic to fix chips, cracks and breaks in people’s crystal, china and porcelain.
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” Gates said. “I never had a real job.”
30 years of traveling
Gates started as a teen repairing glassware in her parents’ Joliet antique shop using a lapidary stone polishing machine.
Lapidary machines have diamond belts with grits that grind and polish.
“I got really good at it so everyone brought me chipped and broken glassware,” Gates said.
For 30 years, she and her husband, Bob, made their living by traveling in a motor home to antique shows in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Gates said they set up shop everywhere.
“Every week, we had an antique show. It was wonderful,” Gates said. “We would fix things at antique shows, invite me to do crystal repair while you wait. Bob and I did that our whole life.”
They also made repairs at mall department stores such as Carson’s, Bonwit Teller, Yonkers and Bergner’s and at shopping malls including Fox Valley in Aurora, Charlestown Mall in St. Charles, Yorktown Mall in Lombard, Northbrook Court and, of course, Jefferson Square Mall in her hometown of Joliet.
“They’d let us come right into their china departments,” Gates said.
One day they were doing an antique show and drawing a crowd when a lady who bought antiques for The Little Traveler invited Gates to bring her service to Geneva.
Probably the biggest thing that Gates said she has repaired was a Tiffany stained glass lamp shade.
“I was doing an antique show in Orland Square in Orland Park and a lady came to me with a basketful. She was coming down the aisle and I heard things jingling and I thought, ‘Oh, boy. Now what?’ ” Gates said. “The lady said, ‘You have to put this together.’ I couldn’t tell her no.”
The repair required laying out about 30 broken pieces on an 8-foot table and fitting them together like a giant glass jigsaw puzzle.
Gates made the repairts.
“And she was ecstatic,” Gates said of the grateful owner.
There also was a 24-inch cut glass vase brought to her – in pieces – at Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale.
“It was not even recognizable as a vase,” Gates said. “The lady said, ‘This is my vase.’ and I said, ‘OK, I have to believe you.’ ”
It was another one that Gates could not say no.
‘Everything chips. Everything breaks’
As remarkable as her work is, Gates thinks it’s remarkable that people trust her with their heirlooms and valuables.
Not everything is repairable.
“I can repair chips – to a degree,” Gates said. “China plates are not worth it. Call and get a replacement. … Everything chips. Everything breaks. Even the thick, heavy stuff breaks.”
People are so appreciative that she has albums filled with handwritten thank-you cards and notes.
She even was featured by late CBS news anchor Harry Porterfield on his segment called “Someone You Should Know.”
Gates starts her day early, about 5 or 6 a.m., going down to a basement workshop after breakfast.
The lapidary belts turn and she said she starts the count of six turns on the rims of chipped glassware.
“I am counting six times inside, outside, on top, then there’s four steps to go from grinding to polishing,” Gates said.
She visits Geneva’s The Little Traveler every three months.
Recently, The Little Traveler owner Mike Simon presented Gates with a plaque in recognition of her 40 years of service.
“I am 76 years old. When am I going to hang up the grinder?” Gates said. “I could be 86 and still grinding glass.”