If you lived in Brandywine Hundred in the 1950s and 1960s, you were classified in one of two ways – you were a Graylyn Crest Shopping Center family or you were a Fairfax Shoppes family.
Back in those post-war days, they were the only two places to shop north of Wilmington because there was no Concord Mall or any of the zillion other shopping areas clogging Concord Pike today. When the Fairfax Shoppes were built in 1951 by contractor Alfred Vilone, most of that area was open space, and the further north you drove, the more open it became.
Our family was a Fairfax Shoppes family for a simple reason – my father owned and operated one of the original stores there, Noonan Brothers Hardware.
In fact, that’s the only store that has stayed as the same business over the last 70 years, although the name has changed. Dad sold his store in 1965 to Harry Kresge, who owned a flooring store next door. Kresge changed the name to Fairfax Hardware, and it is still called that today even though ownership has changed several times.
And the reason Dad sold his store was also simple – growing competition was going to force him to be open on Sundays, and that was something my father, a devout Catholic, wouldn’t do. So, instead of selling out, he just sold.
When the Fairfax Shoppes opened in 1951, there were only two blocks of stores, 14 in total (there are 29 now), separated by Fairfax Boulevard. They were:
The Al-Lu Shoppe
Bennett’s 5 & 10
Brittingham’s Drug Store
Dorsey Appliance Company
Fairfax Beauty Shoppe
Fairfax Floor Covering Company
Greenwood Book Shop
Dentist Stanley Goleburn
Hearn Brothers Super Market
The Colony House Restaurant
Williams Barber Shop
Parklyn Bowling Center
And, of course, Noonan Brothers Hardware.
Other than Dad’s store, the original shops I remember the most were Hearn Brothers, where our mother did all of her grocery shopping, and Williams Barber Shop, where we got our haircuts. We called the owner Bill the Barber and it always struck me that Bill and his No. 2 barber, a guy named Jessie, were both bald.
As the 1950s moseyed along and turned into the 1960s, some of those stores either changed businesses or just changed names. For example, The Colony House Restaurant, next door to the hardware store, became Gina’s Restaurant.
Two of those newer places that were important to me as a kid were Mitchell’s Variety Store, where you could but toys, kites and model trains and was also the local headquarters for boy and girl scout apparel and equipment, and Hoy’s 5 & 10, where you could buy penny candy back in the day when it actually cost a penny, and a regular candy bar cost a nickel (or six for a quarter).
But, by far, the most important place to my friends and me was the bowling alley, which eventually became Grady’s Bowling Center and is currently occupied by Panera Bread.
Grady’s was a great place to hang out and bowl a game for 50 cents (shoe rental was a quarter) or shoot a game of pool, also for a quarter, or play a pinball machine, which was a nickel a game (with five balls per game, not three).
But even if you didn’t have that much money to spend, which was frequently the case with us, you could just hang out and watch other people bowl or shoot pool or play pinball. We killed countless hours at Grady’s and it’s a shame that there are so few bowling alleys still in existence, and none along Concord Pike.
Of course, the fact that my father owned one of the stores in the spanking new shopping center was the main reason Fairfax became a hub of our young universe. My friends and I regularly walked the two miles from our homes in the new development of Shipley Heights, cutting through Forest Hills Park, Lombardy Elementary School and Deerhurst.
My father and his older brother, Jimmy, initially owned two other businesses. One they opened not long after World War II — Noonan Brothers Hardware on Delaware Avenue and Scott Street in Wilmington, which is now the home of Ober R. Kline Picture Framing.
The other was a hardware-variety store in Dewey Beach, at the corner of what was then Route 14 (now Route 1) and New Orleans Street, right across the road from our family cottage – the Noonans have had a summer home in Dewey Beach since the late 1920s. Noonan Brothers was one of the few businesses operating in Dewey Beach at the time – hard to believe now – and in 1951, the store was sold to Harry and Thelma Wilson, who ran it as Wilson’s Variety Store for many years. It now houses Minuteman Press, Vavala’s Beach Things and Woody’s East Coast Bar & Grill. Sadly, no pictures exist from the days when it was Noonan Brothers.
Uncle Jimmy died of cancer in 1952, soon after they opened Noonan Brothers Hardware in Fairfax. Dad expanded the store in 1956, and a newspaper story about the grand opening said: “Mr. Noonan has many years of experience in the hardware business.
After being discharged from the Army in 1945, he established his first store at Delaware Avenue and Scott Street in Wilmington. From there he moved to Rehoboth [actually, Dewey Beach] and finally to Fairfax.’’
The article went on to say that the new store “… has more than 4,000 square feet of display space and an acoustical tile ceiling. It also features self-service display counters, a check-out counter and complete displays of do-it-yourself items, housewares, sporting goods, hardware, garden supplies, tools and tool rentals.’’
And a little piece of Dad – who died in 1998 – still lives in Fairfax. A Christmas mailbox he built for the Delaware Avenue store in the 1940s, in which kids put their letters to Santa Claus, is still put in front of Fairfax Hardware every Christmas season. In fact, when the store was recently sold to Jeff Ulmer, several employees and customers urged him to keep the mailbox tradition alive, and previous owner Art Pleasanton even made that a condition of the sale.
Dad would be pleased.