Lady Limitless: Gloria McKenzie
Photo by Luke George Photography
“I’m really not that interesting, you know,” says Gloria McKenzie with a wry smile.
Born in 1938, at the end of the Great Depression, and part of the Silent Generation, Gloria McKenzie has seen and done a lot. These days, she can be found hauling out her 32lb jewelry cases and tables every Wednesday-Sunday on First Street, weather permitting. At 85 years old, she moves with the vitality of someone far younger. Residents are sure to be familiar with her shops, Twodays Jewelry and Next Door, fixtures of Benicia’s downtown for many years.
Gloria and her family moved from Gary, Indiana, to Vacaville when she was around 5 years old – and when Vacaville’s population reached only 3,000 – to escape the cold which affected her after her recovery from rheumatic fever. “We drove across the country in a little 1937 car with four kids in the backseat,” she recalls of the move, “Probably drove my father crazy.” The family settled on a small farm. “We had a little acre-and-a-half with chickens, cows, pigs, things like that,” says Gloria.
The family would eventually move to Oakland to be closer to their father’s job.
Having been a crane operator at a steel mill in Indiana, he got a job at the only steel mill in the Bay Area at the time, in Emeryville. The commute between Vacaville and Emeryville was arduous, with only a two-lane highway in place of today’s expansive freeway system. “So, he would stay out there during the week and come visit on the weekends. Then eventually, I guess they got enough money together to move us all to Oakland.” This was when Gloria was around age 12.
Born into tough circumstances, those in the Silent Generation were known to keep their heads down and work hard, and Gloria is no different. Gloria began working as a teenager, with her first job at a nursery her friend’s mother owned. “Then, I got married when I was 17, and then divorced at 19,” she chuckles, “and so then I had to go back to work.” She found work at a jewelry wholesaler in Oakland and began cocktailing at night. She would continue cocktailing for 40 years while she worked various other jobs, often two or three at a time. Gloria worked as a courier for Lawrence Livermore Labs, carrying bids for secret projects to various suppliers in the days before computers; she worked at an office coffee supply business, at an organic cookie factory, and at a sign-making business. During this time, she remarried and had and raised two kids.
Her kids grew up and her son began selling jewelry out of a case.
Eventually deciding he didn’t want to carry on with the jewelry sales, Gloria took over the business. She convinced the owner of one of the bars where she cocktailed to allow her to set up the jewelry stand in a corner of the bar. “I told her if she thought it would interfere with my work, then I wouldn’t do it, but it never interfered with my work.”
The jewelry business began taking off and Gloria eventually took over her son’s baseball card shop lease at 612 First Street as her new storefront.
“So, I was 55 years old when I started in 1992.”
Gloria was living in Hayward at the time and still cocktailing in San Jose. “I was money-hungry,” she says, “but then it got to be too much, driving back and forth.” She had named the business Weekend Jewelry, reflecting her open hours on just Saturdays and Sundays. After a split with a business partner, she eventually changed the name to Twodays Jewelry.
The business began by selling jewelry indoors at the shop, “but it’s very hard to get people inside at a jewelry place because they think you’re going to hard-sell them.” One day she noticed a street festival in town where vendors had outdoor tables. She decided to move her jewelry table outside and “by golly, people started buying my stuff!” Gloria replicated her experiment the following day with successful results. “And so, that’s how that started with me being outside,” she says, “And it saved me during the pandemic because I was about the only business operating outside.”
The lease that Gloria took over was for both 612 and 610 First Street, so she opened Next Door, a novelty shop next door to Twodays Jewelry.
Next Door has been closed for some time as the jewelry shop has taken more of Gloria’s focus. “I work very hard to get the best buy that I can; and then I don’t mark it up the way other jewelry stores do. I provide good product, and that’s why I’ve stayed in business,” she says.
Gloria lives in Brentwood now, fully embracing the warm – if not downright hot – weather that her family moved here for in the first place. Her kids are long grown and have kids of their own, ranging in age from 11 to 31. We’re glad her years of hard work led her to Benicia, so that she could become a part of the fabric of our town.