An award-winning producer on how freelancers bring freedom and innovation to structured work environments.
Master horologist John Metcalfe takes us inside his “hospital for clocks,” a precisely-tuned world where time never stops.
As a young boy growing up in London, John Metcalfe found an old clock in his grandmother’s woodshed. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say I repaired it,” Metcalfe told me during my first visit to his Beekman Street workshop in downtown Manhattan. “I put some oil in it, shook it, and it started to work. I have been working on clocks ever since.”
The 1960s, as Metcalfe recalls, were a great time to take up clock restoration as a hobby. Many people were throwing away nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century clocks as junk, and he eventually amassed some 150 of them in his childhood bedroom. “Some of them were good clocks and some of them awful, but I didn’t know enough to discriminate between them,” Metcalfe says.
After attending the British Horological Institute in East London for three years, he found it difficult to land a job in clock repair, and instead taught clock repair classes, followed by a stint as a musical box restorer in North London. Eventually, a colleague who hoped to leave his own clock repair business in Covent Garden asked Metcalfe to rent the place. In the late ’80s, a job offer to be the curator of the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, brought Metcalfe to the U.S.; he worked at the museum for six years, traveling across the country to lecture to chapters of the National Association of Clock and Watch Collectors.
While visiting a friend’s clock repair workshop in New York City in the mid-’90s, Metcalfe was asked if he knew of anyone who’d like to take over the shop. His response: “Yes, me, now.” He has been here ever since. In addition to repairing clocks in his workshop, Metcalfe does house calls on weekday mornings. His clients include museums, auction houses and private residences.
Metcalfe doesn’t own a cell phone, a computer or a digital clock.
* * *
Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!
A new dad on the nightmare-inducing challenge of coming up with a timeless but fresh, cool but not too cool name for his son.
Amy Vilela lost her daughter when she couldn’t afford the medical bills. When her Congressman told her he wouldn’t support universal healthcare, Amy said, “I’m running.”
Cori Bush is a registered nurse, a pastor and a mom. After taking to the streets to protest police killings, she looked in the mirror and said, “why not politician, too?”
“The Boss of the Queens Machine” hasn’t faced a primary challenger in 14 years. But an underfunded upstart is suddenly giving him a run for his money.
Paula Jean Swearengin has seen West Virginia’s land exploited, its people fall ill, and its politicians do nothing. So she decided to do something herself.
But our latest Narratively story isn't available online. Instead, we printed the entire thing on a tote bag, and it's available only to Narratively Patrons.
Become a Narratively Patron today and we'll send you our first-of-its-kind Storytelling Swag Bag. Then a few times a year we'll send fun surprises for you to tote around, from books we love to literary zines and much more.Become a Patron