BY REBECCA ISENHART
SCHENECTADY — On June 16, the Chamber of Schenectady County cut a ribbon in front of a business that’s been open on Upper Union Street for 18 years, in one form or another. While such ceremonies are usually reserved for new businesses, Sondra’s Fine Jewelry is instead marking a renewed commitment to the Schenectady community after a brief flirtation with leaving it.
Not long ago, Sondra Stephens and her son, Anthony Kaczmarek, who is also the company’s vice president, considered opening a small satellite store in downtown Saratoga. The two also considered closing their Schenectady store and moving the whole operation.
Stephens credits Kaczmarek with the idea of revitalizing the Upper Union Street location instead.
“He said, ‘Why don’t we concentrate on modernizing this store?’ ” Stephens recalled.
The updated interior focuses on brides, with engagement rings, wedding rings and jewels for the big day. In addition to brides being an important customer base for Sondra’s Fine Jewelry, the move is also a practical change, given the evolution of that particular block. New flower and cake shops across the way, plus an existing beauty salon, have formed a tiny, hometown bridal district.
The store also added a wine bar, where customers can have a beverage or a soft drink while they browse, and a small patio outside.
Standing in the store, Stephens and Kaczmarek slow with pride — and gleam with jewelry. Stephens sports statement earrings, glittering rings, and even a hair decoration that finishes her braid with glinting shamballa beads. Each of Kaczmarek’s ears support a weighty ring.
Despite the serious consideration the two gave to moving, as Stephens pulls out her calendar with its Louis Vuitton cover, slides on her rhinestone-encrusted reading glasses, and begins flipping through the pages, it’s hard to imagine her anywhere but Schenectady. She obviously has a bias for the city, which she believes is getting better all the time.
“We’re big supporters of the casino,” Stephens said, and Kaczmarek nodded enthusiastically.
Stephens said she knows there might be some ups and downs, but she’s excited about the prospect of new jobs bringing an influx of employees and visitors to explore Schenectady.
Predictions of crime do not dampen her enthusiasm for the project.
“Every time a city grows, there are some negatives,” she said. “This community is on the mend.”
Stephens also has an attachment to a number of local charities and nonprofit organizations. The day after Black Friday each year, she works with other local groups to run the “stuff the truck” event for the USMC Toys for Tots Program, during which residents pack a fire truck with toys. This past year, the event was held at LT’s Grill in Niskayuna.
She’s just recently partnered with the Schenectady Inner City Ministry to support the Summer Lunch program, which offers free food to local kids every weekday all summer at a number of public locations. She will collect nonperishable food items for that program during the Strawberry Festival on June 20.
Stephens is especially enthusiastic about fundraising for Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital, and is donating a gold-and-diamond horse stirrup charm to be raffled off at the organization’s Day at the Races at the Saratoga Race Course in mid-August.
“It’s about being able to pay it forward,” she said.
And, of course, it didn’t hurt that the Schenectady County Legislature recently passed a ceremonial resolution that heaped Sondra’s Fine Jewelry with praise, calling the store a “shining jewel and treasured asset of Schenectady.”
And now that it’s been polished, Stephens and Kaczmarek are looking forward to being part of the local retail community for the foreseeable future. “Upper Union Street is a real jewel,” she said.