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Time's Running Out for Upper East Side Clock Repair Shop

By DNAinfo Staff on September 4, 2012 6:35am

By Arlene Schulman

Special to DNAinfo.com New York

UPPER EAST SIDE — Sutton Clocks has kept time on the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 61st Street since 1967, but this neighborhood fixture may be a thing of the past before the end of the year.

With its lease up, Sutton Clocks is renting its second floor space at 139 East 61st St. on a month-to-month basis. A new business is expected to move into the space in January.

Owner Sebastian Laws, one of the few horologists left in New York City, works out of a tiny space without air conditioning and often without electric light.

“It’s a very old feel,” he said of the nearly 400-square-foot space filled with clocks of different centuries and pedigrees, from 200-year-old carriage clocks and grandfather clocks to metal art deco alarm clocks.

Last week, the store was filled with clocks that ticked, tocked, chimed, gonged, beeped and chirped — often at the wrong time, which is why they were here.

“You can imagine a horologist a century ago working in similar conditions," said Laws.

"There’s a lot of contemplation. Many of these older clocks have pieces that were made by hand, and then had repairs made by another clockmaker,” he said.

“So, it’s interesting to get into another mindset as you’re fixing it and pay homage to how they wanted it to work."

Like an old-fashioned doctor, Laws makes house calls, toolkit in hand, to all parts of the five boroughs, repairing clocks on-site or bringing clock mechanisms back to his shop where he often constructs his own parts.

“Some of these clocks are over 200 years old and the parts just aren’t available,” he explained.

“The clocks are like guests,” he said. “Sometimes they go and come back. I don’t really get attached. It’s like a short stay. They’re passing through.

"My favorites are the old American workhouse kind of clocks. They’re basic and durable.”

Most of his clocks stay for three to four weeks, depending on the complexity of the work. Some stay for months while parts are designed and built.

“A clock has to run well for a week before it’s ready,” said Laws.

“People have very personal relationships with their clock and entrust it to us. They’ll even pet the clock and say ‘I’ll see you later.’”

Laws, 45, who doesn’t wear a watch and owns only three clocks in the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife and daughter, began tinkering with timepieces as a child.

He joined his father, Knud Christiansen, on a full-time basis at Sutton Clocks 20 years ago. Christiansen died in May at the age of 96. Customers still expect to see him and are sometimes skeptical when greeted by his son, who sits at the same workbench that his father used when he opened Sutton Clocks 45 years ago

“They want to know, ‘Where’s the old guy?’” Laws said. “And I say that was my dad. People have a certain stereotype. But this is New York. Everyone does everything.”

His customers come from all over the world, including a couple from around the corner.

Susan Baum and her husband, Ted, climbed the two flights of stairs with a carefully wrapped timepiece modeled on a melting clock from Salvador Dalì’s painting, "The Persistence of Memory." It no longer keeps time.

“I love this clock,” she said, “and I wouldn’t trust it with anyone else.”

“The shop reminds you of another time,” her husband added. “It will be sad to see it go.”

Laws is searching for a small but visible space filled with natural light, in the same neighborhood or in a location easily reachable by his customers.

“I’m going to miss being in a certain spot,” he said.

“The memories of working with my dad and learning the trade will never leave me. But I don’t look at it as a sad thing as much as it’s the next stage.

“New York is always changing.”