After 23 years in business, Downtown Dover mainstay Tom Smith decides to retire "Delaware Made"
For years, if you wanted any kind of a cool souvenir of the First State, all you had to do is head to Tom Smith's Delaware Made store in downtown Dover.
But not for much longer. Smith, 68, who has operated the well-known gift shop for almost 23 years, has decided to retire the business on June 30.
It's simply time to move on to other things, Smith said.
"This business always has been a passion for me," he said in an interview at the Loockerman Street locale. "But I don't think anyone in retail sales can make money anymore unless you're a big box store, or so it appears in Dover."
But don't take away the impression that Smith doesn't enjoy his job. He makes it very clear he loves what he does, he loves being downtown and he loves educating visitors about Delaware in general and Dover in particular.
"One of the best things I get to do is to meet people, not just from around the United States, but from all over the world," he said. "I've been in this business for 23 years and I've never met anyone who said they don't like Dover."
A native of Bridgeville – a town he calls "the Mayberry of Delaware," Smith actually left the First State after completing high school. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of New Mexico, and eventually decided to go on to graduate school there. While in Albuquerque he worked part time as a bellhop at the White Winrock Hotel, at the time considered the classiest hotel in the state.
He tells the story about when comedian Bob Hope registered at the hotel for a charity event and found his rental car had not been delivered. The hotel's car also was unavailable, so Smith offered Hope the use of his Chevrolet Biscayne. He later ran into an official from the charity event and related the story.
The official shook his head and said, "I'd always wondered why someone like Bob Hope would drive that beat up old car."
Over a period of 12 years, Smith moved up from bellhop to front desk supervisor to assistant hotel manager, eventually overseeing more than 200 employees. He returned to Delaware after his aunt told him – erroneously, it turns out – that his father was in failing health. Smith came back but found his father spry enough that he was planting potatoes on St. Patrick's Day when there still was snow on the ground.
Not finding any full time hotel jobs in Sussex County, Smith became manager at the old Holiday Inn in Dover, and then at the Comfort Inn.
"Being a hotel manager is always a challenge, it's never dull," he said. "There's always something going on."
Smith was thinking about trying another career when he found an advertisement for a store promoting the state of Wyoming and offering sales of many Wyoming-related souvenirs.
The store was called Wyoming Made.
"I thought, 'We're in Dover, the capital of the state. Why not a Delaware Made?'" he said.
Smith admits the thought of striking out on his own was intimidating, but felt he had the resources to survive, no matter what happened.
"It was scary," he said. "I knew I wouldn't be out on the street if it didn't work. Maybe close, but not out on the street."
Delaware Made opened on Sept. 15, 1989, in the John Bullen House, a historic property on South State Street. Smith later moved Delaware Made to Loockerman Street when the Bullen property was sold.
Being the manager and owner of a store specializing in Delawareania has brought Smith into contact with people who have helped him expand his own knowledge of both Delaware and Dover history.
"I've learned I love Dover even more than I thought I did," he said. "People will tell me stories about how Dover used to be, who lived here, who did what.
"People used to come downtown on Friday nights to walk up and down, do their shopping and just talk to people," he said. "They even had picnics out of their cars.
"It's the story of all small towns all over America."
Smith has made it a point to be involved in efforts to bring businesses and people back to downtown, twice serving as president of the former Main Street Dover organization. He supports the current Downtown Dover Partnership but also remains critical of some efforts to revitalize the area.
"I still believe in Downtown Dover, but there are issues that still aren't being addressed," he said. "Sometimes when problem areas are brought up, board members tend to circle the wagons by saying 'we know what's best.'"
He perceives a lack of communication between board members and downtown merchants as the biggest problem, Smith said.
In addition, "Many merchants do not seem to be willing to devote the time and energy to make it better," he said.
It's his philosophy that part of being successful is helping the other guy be successful, Smith said.
"We're all in this together," he said. "To solve our problems, we need to help each other. I really believe that."
As Smith noted, he will be retiring his store, not himself. He and his partner live in west Dover and have no plans to leave. His retirement sale already is under way.
As for his own future, Smith answers with a vague, somewhat enigmatic smile.
"I really don't know," he said. "I wouldn't even venture a guess."