Stepping into the home of Joe Fannelli is like stepping into a portrait of time itself.
Antique clocks tease the ears with soft ticks and tocks. The timepieces themselves cover the walls and perch on shelves as cherished family photographs would in other homes.
Fanelli heads to the garage, pausing to point out clocks here and there and makes his way past the laundry room.
His paradise is just a few steps away. He walks through the garage and reaches for another door.
“This is my hiding place,” he says. “All I need is a TV and a bed, and I’d never have to come out.”
Fanelli steps into his workshop, where vintage clocks line the walls and fill a display cabinet. A glass sign with gold lettering hangs above his desk. It reads: “Joseph Fanelli Antique Clocks & Restorations.”
Fanelli continues through yet another doorway into a room cluttered with machinery, clock parts and other clock memorabilia.
Countless hours are spent in this small room. Countless hours are spent taking vintage clocks apart, cleaning them, fixing them and putting them back together.
Repairing antique clocks wasn’t Fanelli’s first love, but it’s become the affair of his life.
Journey to time
Fanelli and his two brothers grew up in East Liberty, a town about eight miles outside of Pittsburgh, in an all-Italian neighborhood.
The Fanelli family loved music, and Joey loved to sing.
When he got older, his father sent him to a friend’s house to repair clocks — and consequently stay out of trouble. There, Fanelli learned the basics of clockwork, never suspecting the trade he was learning would turn into a career.
After graduating high school, Fanelli worked as a construction laborer for a few years before being drafted for the Korean War in 1953. He served in Germany after the war had ended and was discharged in 1955.
In letters home, he wrote of his desire to continue a career in music. And when he arrived home, he discovered 12 suits of clothes hanging in his closet — suits his father, a tailor, had made for his new music venture.
Fanelli sold his car and headed eastward.
“After the war, I just packed my bags and went to New York City,” he says.
Eventually, his talents were discovered, and a manager gave him a stage name — Johnny Farro. He landed appearances on television programs such as “The Lawrence Welk Show” in California.
But even during his career, Fanelli visited antique shops, hunting for old clocks he thought were a good value. He knew he could fix them and make them work.
“A friend of mine collected (clocks) before then, and I always thought he was crazy,” Fanelli says.
The young musician left the business when his manager’s two brothers were gunned down in the New York area. In 1969, with no work or a family, Fanelli looked for a storefront in which he could start a clock repair business.
“I just liked (clocks),” Fannelli says. “I never worked for anybody. That was an easy way of not getting a job.”
He named the shop “Clocks and Things.” Clocks were the substance of his business, but the “things” were any other antique he could find to fill wall space. Business picked up almost immediately, and the shop soon was swamped with repairs. A feature in the “New York Times” drove the number of repairs even more.
Within a few years, Fanelli realized selling clocks would be better than repairs, and he broadened his inventory to lure “clock collectors.” He added antique timepieces — pocket watches, later wristwatches, special small clocks called Carriage Clocks — to the shop.
“You can’t make a living fixing clocks in the basement,” he says.
As business grew, so did the size of Fanelli’s storefront. He moved into larger shops several times over the years, eventually renaming the operation “Fanelli Antique Timepieces, Ltd.” to better match the prestige of his timepieces. He also worked with business partner Patric Capon, who lived in London, to track down unique pieces at auctions and from collectors.
“When I first started buying expensive clocks, I went to London,” Fanelli says. “(Patric and I) met at an auction. We had the same clients and were looking for the same sort of clocks. We maintained the same collections.”
He still maintains many of those collections today, Fanelli said.
There was rarely a dull moment working in the antique clock business.
Over the years, the shop received threats of being “hit” by gang members. Fanelli helped recover 18th-century pocket watches that had been stolen from various museums, and he even sold a clock to Yoko Ono for a gift to John Lennon and later visited the couple’s home.
After Fanelli had moved into his store on Madison Avenue in New York City, a friend in the clock business encouraged him to author his first book, published in 1987. Titled “A Century of Fine Carriage Clocks,” the book features 100 carriage clocks from various collectors, each with a detailed description and photograph. More than 7,000 copies sold, making Fanelli the authority on carriage clocks.
Fanelli’s success in the clock business continues today. He still maintains the collections of carriage clocks featured in his book.
And although he no longer runs a storefront, having closed the last one in 2005, the part-time East County resident spends his evenings tinkering away in his garage-side shop, fixing the clocks he still maintains for collectors.
He takes each clock apart, gear by gear, to clean it, before making the repairs.
“You have one of these clocks apart on your bench and you can’t leave it,” he says.
Most nights, he starts work after 10 p.m., so the telephone won’t disturb him.
At 76, Fanelli could wrap up his work and never think about clocks again, but instead, he chooses to keep his hands and his mind busy, buying and selling merchandise and maintaining clocks for the collectors he’s worked with over the years.
“Legally, I’m retired,” he says. “But I’ll probably do this all my life.”
Contact Pam McTeer at [email protected].