When San Juan Bautista visitors discover Mission Clocks and Watches at 217 Third Street, they often tell owner Ronald Paulk that he should charge admission. The tightly-packed shop is filled with mechanical wonders of all kinds—the grandfather clock and the articulated movement clocks steal the show.
Paulk, 77, began his journey in 1960 as a high school senior fixing typewriters in Enid, Oklahoma.
“I did that for about five years,” he said, “until I was about to be drafted. I enlisted in the Navy and wanted to get into electronics. At my placement interview after boot camp, the guy pulled out an exam paper and started asking me all these questions about typewriters.”
Paulk said he answered all the questions correctly and was told: “you are already trained—you are an instruments man.”
Thus he skipped technical training and was sent to the USS Prairie, which provided repair, supply, and medical services to ships of the Seventh Fleet.
On board the Prairie, Paulk was sent to the clock shop.
“I never touched a typewriter in all the time I was in the Navy, only clocks and watches,” he said. “I learned by watching the other men tear down clocks, then putting them back together.”
After leaving the Navy in 1969, Paulk moved to California and finally had his chance to get into electronics. He worked at various firms for 27 years, including nearly 14 years at Seagate. His interest in clocks remained, as he collected unusual clocks and repair manuals.
He repaired clocks on the side, and one of those service calls years ago brought him a dedicated customer, Lois Long of Lois’ Unique Home Furnishings in San Juan Bautista. Her business and Mission Clocks are located on opposite sides of the corner of Third and Mariposa streets.
“Twenty-five years ago, when I lived in Gilroy, he came out and fixed a grandfather clock for me,” she said. “He did a beautiful job. Over the years I’ve brought him lots of pieces to repair and he has always been ready to help.”
After leaving Seagate, Paulk and his wife Alma moved back to Enid where he opened a repair shop.
“We had a business there for about four years and realized we were not making any money,” he said. “We came back to California because you can’t beat the weather here.”
Back on the West Coast in 2003, Paulk started looking in Santa Cruz for a place to open a business, but said the regulations and demands from the city for new businesses were too much for him to deal with.
After looking around Hollister, he settled on his current building at 217 Third Street in San Juan Bautista. He said the realtor tried to discourage him.
“The termite report alone was 14 pages long,” Paulk said. “This building is redwood and I didn’t think they would go after redwood. But if there is nothing else to eat, they will eat it until they die.”
The building had no foundation, so it had to be lifted and a foundation added. It also had a tin roof, something Paulk was happy to get rid of immediately.
“The historical review board wanted me to leave the roof alone, but I told them it sounded like being in a tin can when it rained,” he said.
After months and months of rebuilding, he was ready to open in 2004. As a nod to his birthplace, the cabinets in the shop came from an old drug store in his hometown of Enid.
Once open, Paulk found a need and filled it. He currently has a two-year backlog on some of the more complicated jobs. And all jobs have elements of complication to them.
For example, to repair a wind-up clock like the Westminster Chime clock he is working on now, the mechanism has to be taken down to each individual component part. In a process akin to archeology, the pieces must be removed layer by layer until the clock is completely disassembled. With repair manuals often scarce, Paulk photographs the process as he goes to provide a guide for reassembly.
Once a clock is apart and the pieces are cleaned, damaged pieces can be identified and replaced, and the mainspring can be re-oiled. The process is exacting and time-consuming, but Paulk says bringing a family heirloom back to life is worth the effort. In cases where the clockworks cannot be repaired, he will fit a new mechanism into the case.
Some of the more unusual clocks Paulk has worked on include earlier clocks with two dials—one for the time and one for the day and date that works off a second movement—and Ansonia figure clocks, where a standing figure holds a working clock. Paulk said the most difficult timepiece he’s worked on was a grandfather clock with an articulated figure that looked like a butcher cutting meat in sync with the pendulum.
Mission Clocks and Watches is not just a repair shop; the space is devoted to clocks of all kinds. There are full-sized grandfather clocks, and smaller versions called grandmother and granddaughter clocks. There are shelves of antique mantle clocks and walls covered with cuckoo clocks. Paulk even carries those cat clocks with swinging tails and shifting eyes that seem to have been in every mother’s kitchen in the 1950s and ’60s.
One of the sights that he said always impresses visitors is a display collection of articulated wall clocks. At the chiming of the hour, the faces of the clocks come alive. They split into pieces that spin and whirl around like jigsaw puzzle parts and come back together perfectly. It is a short mechanical minuet performed in a dozen varieties on clocks that Paulk never seems to tire of showing off.
The other half of the shop is a carefully curated selection of mechanical technology with wonders of all kinds. It is a retro paradise with everything from old film cameras to typewriters to record players to music boxes. Japanese novelties are a favorite, with a focus on robots. There are robot-shaped tea strainers, robot pencil sharpeners, and of course, robot clocks and watches.
These days in San Juan Bautista, general retail sales are down compared to previous years. Paulk used to be open six days a week, but has cut back to three days. At one point last year, he said he considered closing entirely (he changed his mind).
“It hurts a little bit not to be open to the public as much, but I really need the closed time to be able to work,” he said. “I take appointments and do service calls that I could not do if I was open more than this.”
Happily for tourists and lovers of older technology, Paulk can be found any Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., ready to bring these mechanical marvels to life again and again for folks who venture in for a look.