by Barney Quick
photo by Cindy Steele
That said, he is also passionate about the gems themselves. Most years, he takes two weeks to wander the aisles of the Tucson Gem Show in Arizona, the largest show of its kind in the world.
Brown County has always been a major aspect of Stoffer’s life. His grandfather, I.W. Meridith, was one of the landscape painters who made the area renowned for its subject matter in the early twentieth century. Stoffer, originally from Chicago, lived in Brown County from age nine to sixteen, in a Civil War-era house on Cherry Hill Farm.
His mother took art classes at Indiana University. “I watched the students making jewelry,” he recalls. “That was my first exposure to the craft.”
During his late adolescence in California, he was in the Downey High School marching band, serving as assistant drum major to Karen Carpenter. “I can legitimately claim to have played music with her,” he says. He gave some thought to pursuing a career as a music teacher, but reconsidered when he, “thought about how horrible grade-school kids sound on saxophones and clarinets.”
He enrolled at Northrup Institute of Technology and studied aeronautical mechanics for two years. He also took a night class in jewelry-making at a junior college. Soon he was taking pieces he’d made to flea markets.
He returned to Nashville to go into business with his brother Donn, who had started a jewelry and craft shop known as Grasshopper Flats on Van Buren Street. It was the early 1970s, a time of renewed interest in the role of crafts in Brown County culture. Stoffer decided to stay and join the venture. Their sister Nancy and her husband contributed their leatherworking skills as well. The store also originally sold pottery. In many ways, it was the prototype of the local-artisan shop that is enjoying yet another revival in Nashville.
The difference between that era and now, as Stoffer sees it, is that “back then, if it was hand-crafted, it sold. Now, a great idea is knocked off in China within a couple of months. That merchandise makes its way back here. It can be hard to distinguish from the locally made items.”
He bought out Donn in the late 1970s. Since then, he has focused increasingly on jewelry.
“The key is to find niches in which you can be competitive,” he says. He’s pleased that the kind of work that fits such niches for him also permits him to bring the integrity he so values to bear. “I try not to be fancy or high-pressure,” he explains. “I don’t carry some things, such as pieces with precarious designs, because I know the customer will have problems down the road.” He cites a ring in a catalogue picture sporting six single-prong wear points as an example.
In keeping with his outlook, he advises aspiring jewelers to consider sizings and repair as the bread and butter of their work life. “Everybody wants to be a designer,” he notes. “What you find, though, is that there’s great satisfaction in being a bench jeweler.”
He estimates that the ratio of local customers to out-of-towners is 80 percent to 20. “The reward of making good service and a fair price my main priority is that, not only do I get repeat business from out-of-towners, now I’m getting their kids.”
Along with the family heritage that he values so highly, the other primary charm of Brown County life for him is its simplicity, as exemplified by the fact that, “there are only three stoplights in the whole county.”
Grasshopper Flats is located at 150 S. Van Buren Street in Nashville and can be contacted at (812) 988-4037.