Specializing pays off for these local businesses
Shattered an heirloom soup tureen? There’s a niche business in Lewes that can put it back together. After all, they restored a bronze bust of Napoleon cast when the emperor was still alive.
Dropped a hot pot on your teak kitchen floor? A Newark refinisher may be able to fix the telltale spot without sanding the entire room.
Lost the key to your Lexus? A Brandywine Hundred hardware store owner invested more than $3,000
in high-tech equipment to get you back in the driver’s seat.
The state’s niche businesses aren’t all cha-ching. The entrepreneurs who offer hard-to-find services often just love the challenge. As one restoration artist put it, “Matching a color sounds easy, but sometimes paint dries darker or lighter. The color can be affected by the glaze we put on. It has to be exact. It can’t be close.”
That level of detail is what keeps most of these savvy business owners interested. But they also stay for the devoted customers and the fascinating stories picked up along the way.
Picking up the pieces
Lakeside Pottery in Lewes gets 5,000 to 6,000 visits to its website daily.
Patty Storms and Morty Bacher, the husband-and-wife team that owns Lakeside, let customers know upfront if the prognosis for their piece is iffy or if it would cost more to restore than it would to replace. They’ve learned that some inexpensive pieces mean the world to their owners.
An 89-year-old man commissioned them to repair a commonplace statue he was given by a grateful family after he walked miles with their injured son on his back during World War II.
A Muslim woman asked for an estimate to repair a broken Infant of Prague statue. When they told her the repairs would cost more than a replacement, she said she couldn’t pay the price but she had to have it repaired because it was the only link she had left to a kind Christian family who helped her before she fled Sudan. Bacher and Storms restored it and told her to pay whatever she could.
The duo has repaired art and pottery from around the world, including museum pieces and items seen on “Antiques Roadshow.”
A Catholic church sent its decades-old Blessed Mother statue with a missing index finger. A collector sent a 200-pound nude in a bizarre pose.
Bacher and Storms aren’t in it for the money: “We could have retired a long time ago. We’ve been fortunate with what we’ve done,” he said. “There’s a quote: “˜I’m not who I am. I am what I do with my hands. It’s like oxygen. Without it, I’d decay.'”
“As long as our hands are busy, it gives us real joy,” Storms said. “And you’re impacting people’s lives in ways that you don’t know until later, when you hear the story of what the objects meant to them.”
Handling upwards of 550 items a year, they’ve met people they probably wouldn’t have met in any other job – from Delaware’s Former Deputy Insurance Commissioner Mitch Crane to Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Doug Wilson.
They moved to Lewes from Connecticut two years ago after an internet customer invited them to spend some time at his house and see how they liked the beaches.
“You meet all these people you would have never met otherwise,” Bacher said. “It gives us a window
to the world.”
Treading lightly on history
Ziggy Mielnikiewicz refinished the floors at Stanton’s Hale-Byrnes House, where George Washington held a war council in 1777, and at a New Castle home that was the site of an early 19th-century du Pont wedding where the Marquis de Lafayette gave the bride away.
“When you do a historical house, you want to do it so it’s repaired but it looks like nothing ever happened,” Mielnikiewicz said. “If there’s damage to the wood, you do small repairs, the very minimum of work so that it’s not noticeable.”
It takes experience to repair just one spot in a floor, but that’s the ideal if a dropped pot or an errant fireplace poker lands and leaves its mark on your red oak. Mielnikiewicz has puttied bullet holes. He’s tented wet spots to draw the water out slowly. He’s given estimates for everything from a bare spot created by double-sided rug tape to deep scratches left by a deer that crashed through a window.
Sometimes, he said, he feels like J.K. Simmons, the actor on the Farmer’s Insurance “We’ve-Seen -Everything” commercials.
While whole-room refinishing is much more lucrative, Mielnikiewicz said doing the small jobs leads to bigger ones.
“If you’re a contractor and you have a license, you have a responsibility to the public to do the right thing. You return phone calls. You give them a decent price and not scalp them. If you do the ethical thing, it makes you look good, it makes you feel good and, in the end, it brings you business,” he said. “When you do a small job and it works out, people are very happy, and that’s better than $1,000 in advertising, because you get on Facebook and word-of-mouth and everything else.”
While spot repairs are just 10 percent of his Ziggy’s Wood Floors‘ business, he said they fuel his flooring business, which is about 75 percent referrals. “It’s Delaware,” he said. “It’s six degrees of Kevin Bacon – or maybe even less.”
Art Pleasanton’s Fairfax Hardware has been a staple in Fairfax Shopping Center for decades, but, now, it’s also the place locals go to buy the newest smart car keys.
Making the high-tech keys requires a constant learning curve because the equipment is updated every month, Pleasanton said, but he figures he must provide the service to keep his business current – just like he now carries cell phone tools.
“You almost have to do it, because some of the new products have this new tech and you have to change with it. It’s just something you have to add to your business, just like we used to have a whole section of landline phone accessories, but, now, we carry cell phone tools and we have less landline accessories,” he said.
“If brick-and-mortar stores are going to survive, they’ve got to step up and give good service,” Pleasanton said. “If I get bad service, I go to the internet and order.”
He said he doesn’t have to advertise much because he emphasizes giving customers good service. “All you have to do is give good service. Then, when your customers all go out to dinner together and they say, “˜What did you do today?’ and one says, “˜I fixed my faucet’ and they say, “˜Where did you go?’ then the customer says, “˜I went to Fairfax.'”
Since he installed the $3,000-plus machine 18 months ago, word is getting around. He now sells about 20 to 25 smart keys a month.
“Hopefully, we can provide a service and make some money,” Pleasanton said. Meanwhile, the key machine, located in the back of the store, is drawing customers through the aisles
Jay Stephenson compares what he does to the Safelite commercial where your windshield cracks and a technician comes out and uses a resin to repair the problem. “It’s a similar thing in the bowling world,” he said. “If your ball has a crack, we can fill it in with epoxy.”
Stephenson, who runs Jaybird Pro Shop at Pleasant Hill Lanes in Newport, repairs balls cracked from weather or worn from use. “Over time, a ball is just like your car tire. There’s wear, and it needs to be resurfaced,” he said.
Like other one-off pros have decades of experience, Stephenson has been bowling since age 5 and began working at the alleys as a teenager.
While most of his customers are local, some drive from southern Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey
and Pennsylvania, and Stephenson said he’s drilled balls for visitors from India, Germany and the
Hobby to profession
Ed Carey purposely put his new lamp repair business in the back room of his family’s circa-1840 frame shop at 103 E. State St. in Millsboro, the oldest commercial building in town.
“Most lamp repairs cost less than $25,” Carey said. “I’m not trying to make a living with this. I would like to make a little something for my effort and make someone happy and help keep an old lamp alive. But I walk them through the frame shop – you and I might call it a loss leader.”
Carey started Old Lamps New Again at the urging of hardware store manager whose repair person passed away. Within two weeks after she began steering referrals his way, Carey ordered business cards and created his own website.
He had been repairing lamps since he was a kid in the 1950s, but, until his retirement, his day jobs had been in I.T. and calibration at L. D. Caulk Co.
Lamp repair gives him a chance to turn his old hobby into a paying business and the new business dovetails with the family business.
“This gave me an opportunity to do something along with the picture framing that we offer. The frame business has deadlines. The lamps are less pressure. I can work on them in between.”