Remembering a Fairfax Icon: Mitchell’s Department Store

Old time Brandywine Hundred-ers and local obituary-watchers may have caught the recent passing of John “Jack” E. Mitchell, Sr., who shuffled off this mortal coil on October 18 at the age of 91.

The notice said Jack was from Ithaca, New York and he served in the Army Air Corps.  He was an avid pilot, who loved woodworking, boating, collecting brass locomotives and building things, including display cases for Mitchell’s store, a legendary family-run business that through various incarnations anchored the Fairfax shopping center for more than a generation.

Mitchell’s 5 & 10 was a core tenant for the suburban center built in 1950 by Alfred J. Vilone, and over the years was known as “Mitchell’s Variety” and “Mitchell’s Family Store,” what was in those days called a “junior department store.” 

According to a 2017 article by Kathy Canavan in the Delaware Business Times, Vilone once told current owner Andy Aerenson “people originally made fun of him for building a shopping center in “the middle of nowhere,” four miles from Wilmington’s central business district.”

Today the center is still thriving, with a mix of local retail, restaurants and national chains. But there is no more Mitchell’s. The last of its namesake descendants – Mitchell’s Trains, Toys and Hobbies – closed in October 2008, a casualty of tough economic times for family-owned retailers in that increasingly niche space (Mitchell’s former hobby department manager has taken over and moved shop to Philadelphia Pike in Claymont

Following that closure, family member Joe Mitchell started YoYo Joe’s, still on “the Pike” but further up 202 on the other side of the thoroughfare in Talleyville.  A July 2013 WHYY article on that businesses’ end reflected on the family’s legacy:

YoYo Joe’s was a continuation of Mitchell’s father’s retail toy legacy started in 1953. When Mitchell’s Trains, Toys and Hobbies closed in Sept. 2008, the younger Mitchell’s specialty toy shop welcomed its first customers a couple months later.

“At the time we opened, there was a decently healthy market for the specialty toy stores,” Mitchell said. “In the last five years since we’ve been open, I think there’s been four or five toy stores that have closed and it’s just, unfortunately, the trend seems to be in these toy stores going away.”

Mitchell’s was an iconic brand for Brandywine Hundred families, like the Charcoal Pit or Pappy’s or the swinging bear and cafeteria at John Wanamaker’s, and for many, it evokes memories of good and special times.

Farewell and thank you Jack Mitchell.

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