The Zwart Janstraat in the Old North is one of the oldest shopping streets in Rotterdam. It is a long, always busy street, with almost two hundred shops and a popular, multicultural atmosphere. In 1972 Ton (74) and Tieneke (70) Rhemrev opened their ‘shop workshop gold and silver’, both are goldsmiths. At that time, the street mainly had shops that were passed on from generation to generation: fabric shops, hat shops, drugstores. And everyone lived above his business. Ton and Tieneke still do that.
Today we are in the back of the shop, where there is a small kitchen behind the workshop where they make their jewelry. From that kitchen a staircase leads to the upper house where they live and where their three children grew up. They close their shop in December, after fifty years. NRC spoke earlier with Ton and Tieneke Rhemrev, for an article about insecurity and degeneration in the neighbourhood. People often said to them, then told them, ‘You stay here, why don’t you leave.’
That was in 2005. And you’re still here.
Ton: “And people still say that. But this is a nice place to live and work.”
Tieneke: “A lot has changed, of course. When we started fifty years ago, the man from the shop next to you was just like you, sweeping the sidewalk in the morning. Now the neighbor says: dude, are you sweeping again. Then I say: it has to stay a bit neat. Or he comes into the shop here and then it’s like: all those flowers, why are you doing that. Then I say: we are here all day, then it is nice that you make it cozy. But he finds it enough that he puts out his boxes. It’s just business, he says.”
Ton: “That is also of all times, isn’t it. We used to have a neighbor who said: what are you doing, man, you just have to earn as much money as possible, then you won’t put money into renovating your store. They wanted to make as much profit as possible for as little cost as possible.”
When you started, almost all the shops were owned by a few families. How did you come in between?
Ton: “There has always been a goldsmith in this shop, ever since the building was built 130 years ago. Last year we had a visit from our pastor’s daughter, she was ninety years old at the time. She wanted to know if the chestnut tree was still in the garden, that’s what she came for. She thought it all turned out really nice here, she said: as a child I used to sleep in the back of the store. The property belonged to her parents, her mother said to us at the time: I want a goldsmith here again, I want to continue that. That’s how we were able to buy the store, which was very unusual at the time. The street was very popular, all those families kept their buildings and their shops. Or they were divided among themselves, the butcher was the brother of the spectacles man, who was again the nephew of the shoemaker.”
Tieneke: „I had just left the academy at the time, I was twenty. It was the seventies, wonderful time. Everything is going to change, you thought. And we were going to do it a little differently.”
Ton: “You had the established jewelers who had been doing the same for a hundred years – we didn’t want it that way. And we were lucky that just then silver was coming up, before that it was all just gold. Silver is much cheaper than gold, so you can do more with it, you can make great, imaginative jewelry with it.”
Tieneke: “Our name was also different than usual, Ton and Tieneke.”
Ton: “Jeweler Rhemrev, it should have been. But that started to change right at that time, people were addressed by their first names.”
Bram Peper instead of ‘Mr. Mayor’.
Tieneke: „That was also a very sweet customer. We’ve had so many people here. Lubbers with his wife, they would sit behind with a cup of tea. And Set Up. There are also all photos of it. Then you think: I’ve been through all that. And that stops now, you stop with your story, as it were. But we will of course keep the workshop. And you don’t have to think about it too much. We are a bit like: then we take everything with us to heaven and then we continue there. Of course you can’t, but it’s that feeling you see. It’s also fantastic that we did it together, with the help of my sister-in-law in the shop all the while. We don’t say it often to each other, but it really is.”
Why are you even stopping?
Ton: “We said: fifty years, then we stop.”
Tieneke: “Ton became very ill two years ago. Really very sick, it’s a miracle he’s healed. I thought, when he was so ill: I’ll just close the shop now. But he said: no, you keep it open, that lifeline is important to you. And now he is there to complete it together.”
Ton: „I also work a bit again. Very slowly, but I have plenty of time.”
Tieneke: „Which also works out well: in this part of the street we are getting new piles under the buildings. It’s all sinking in here, so that had to happen at some point. But then the store has to be completely empty – cupboards, display cases, counters: everything – because then the whole floor opens up. So it’s a rigorous ending actually.”
Ton: „But we will continue to live here. You can say: what a hassle, a renovation that will take months, sell the lot anyway. But this building has grown with us, there is so much feeling in it.”
Tieneke: “I remember how I walked around here in the beginning: barefoot, in those long robes, a scarf woven through my hair – that’s how it was in those days. And later our children played in the store among the customers.”
Ton: “We did it in a special way, but you only see that afterwards.”
Tieneke: “Now I say to the grandchildren: later on you have to do something that you really enjoy doing. That’s more important than making money. The oldest is ten, they come here to tinker and draw.
Ton: “They think it’s bad that we stop.”
Tieneke: “When we talk about that, they almost cry. They always sit behind this while I’m designing. Then they hear the sound of the workshop. Or the doorbell when a customer comes in. And the dog is there too, he walks around a bit. That whole atmosphere is going to disappear, but they have experienced it nicely.”