North Shore Clock Shop
Marilyn and George Phillips helm “the one place you can buy time.”
Photo by Elise Sinagra
Marilyn and George Phillips, owners of Phillips’ Clock Shop in Swampscott, bring a whole new meaning to the value of time. Since 1974, the couple has collected, repaired, and dealt in all manner of timepieces.
When they first met, decades ago, one of their common interests was antiquing. “George has always appreciated fine old clocks,” notes Marilyn. “He is very mechanically inclined, so it was either computers or clocks.” It was decidedly clocks. He attended the North Bennet Street School in Boston, where watch and clock repair was once taught, and he worked at the Chelsea Clock Company as well as in Jordan Marsh’s watch repair department, acquiring years of experience. Today, in his own shop, George’s services include luxury watch and antique clock repair, though he specializes in the care of old American pocket watches.
Hunting and pecking among their stock, one starts to appreciate the innumerable details that differentiate one clock from another. The eclecticism that defines their collection confounds the mind and charms the eye. “Isn’t that fabulous?” is a question that gets asked a lot when walking around with Marilyn.
The Phillipses carry every conceivable type of time teller—from towering tubular grandfather clocks to the most delicate of ladies’ wristwatches. The clocks span the gamut from very traditional Comitti clocks to contemporary Rhythm clocks, which people enjoy for their warm tones and the fact that a sensor turns off the musical element at night. One finds Emperor, Howard Miller (the largest clock company in the world), Jerger, and Hermle clocks. There are French and German brass and glass clocks and Seth Thomas American clocks. They also import pieces from England and have countless antique clocks, which sometimes come from people looking to downsize or, on occasion, from local auction houses including Skinner and John McInnis.
A colorful selection of German and Chinese cuckoo clocks adorns one wall, standing beside which Marilyn makes the point that many were brought back from the war and have poignant sentimental value for people. She also notes that there aren’t a lot of people who carry them nowadays. The Phillipses offer handmade clocks from Canada—that clockmaker uses rosewood and provides information about how old it is and where it was harvested. Gingerbread clocks, also known as kitchen clocks, are mixed into the medley and are appreciated for the ornate wooden carvings around their casings. The couple points out a Westminster antique clock with triple keyholes that strikes quarterly, as well as a gold-front Foster Campos banjo clock and a marble strike and Westminster chime clock. Browsers won’t find many electric clocks, though at press time they did have a remarkable Art Deco–style electric clock that Marilyn speculated would sell quickly. Looking at a catalogue of clocks published in 1976, George says of the types listed: “It goes on and on,” much like their own inventory. He then brings out a miniature Zappler clock—no bigger than an inch high. Marilyn’s enthusiasm for it is as great as it might be for the finest grandfather clock.
Of the many antique French clocks they have for sale, George says: “Most of the French clocks are pretty and of very high quality. That’s what I like about them. The American clocks that are high quality are the Chelsea, Waltham, and E. Howard clocks—all the others were mostly mass-produced.” As an example, he points to a large 1840s French clock, noting its original gilding, and another’s hand-painted panel.
Next, he pulls out a favorite E. Howard Civil War–period pocket watch, saying: “A lot of my watches I polish, but this one I didn’t have the heart to [because of] the years it took to make it look like that.” Marilyn notes how interesting it is to think about the history of a piece—who has touched it, who has owned it, the lives behind each watch. In fact, half the fun of wandering around the chock-full-of-clocks shop is thinking about those stories. “I wish they could talk,” says George of the approximately 300 watches he has in his possession.
Both Marilyn and George are happy to share the breadth of their expertise. They might describe how, in the 1860s, French clocks made with slate, onyx, or marble cases became popular in the United States, but in response to their high price tags, American clock manufacturers produced similar looking cases made of iron or wood covered with an Adamantine finish—those clocks enjoyed popularity from 1880 to 1931. Such clocks have become known to collectors as “black mantel clocks.” The couple can expound on subjects like the difference between chime rod grandfather clocks and tubular bell grandfather clocks. They can name the companies that make German movements, which are found in most clocks, though they note that Chelsea Clocks makes their own. George might talk about how one went about becoming a watchmaker back in “the old days,” saying, “A couple hundred years ago, somebody would take you in. All they had to do was provide room and board and you would sweep the floors and do everything you were told to do, and little by little, you worked your way up to see if you could eventually become a watchmaker.” The truth is, any number of conversations might take place inside Phillips’ Clock Shop.
When among other collectors, George appreciates those who remember the Great Depression. “[When] anybody came through the door during the Depression,” he explains, “you made what they wanted.” People would order one-of-a-kind clocks (versus the customarily much larger orders). “That’s why, every once in a while, you find a very different looking Chelsea clock. They are from that period and were made up special for people. It kept [the clockmakers] afloat.” Additionally, the First and Second World Wars found manufacturers making clocks for ships and clocks-in-a-box for troops on the ground.
In addition to the stories, Marilyn also adores clocks for the effect they have on people. “Clocks add a lot of character and comfort to a home,” she says, recalling a Seth Thomas clock in her mother’s kitchen that had “this fabulous tick to it.” To hear it now is to recall fond memories. Clocks make both a visual and auditory impression. “To sit in a living room or family room watching a pendulum swing,” says Marilyn, “is very relaxing and therapeutic. That’s what I think people do and why they like them.”
George talks about the details of his work, how he troubleshoots mechanical issues, and what it means to be a collector. “Every time I get another one, I get excited,” he says. “When you collect stuff, that’s half of it.” But he likes researching the pieces, too. He describes an 1848 Waltham clock and the story behind it—how the threat of going out of business that year meant the company had to choose between folding and cutting employees’ wages. “They said, ‘We want to work.’” George appreciates that attitude as one that no longer exists but is visible in the craftsmanship of that clock.
The future of shops such as theirs? “I think there is always going to be a demand for clocks,” says George. “Hopefully some young people will get involved with it—they lose so much because they have so much information on their phones…it’s in the phone but not in their heads. Whether it’s clocks, watches, coins, you name it—if they get involved in collecting, that’s half of it, and the other half is reading up on it—that way they become whole because they are really looking at the item, not just [holding] it.” Marilyn adds: “We do a lot of clock shows around the country with the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. They are always trying to get younger people involved. It’s nice to go to the shows and see some of the younger people appreciating watches and clocks.”
The gentle couple becomes charmingly animated when describing the handful of grandfather clocks they keep at home. After all these years, their shared passion is evident in everything they say on the subject. “We get a little crazy,” says Marilyn with a big smile in her eyes. “We go to the shows and get so excited—as though we have never seen a clock before!”