Gerald Willey, born to be a farmer, served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, worked at Du Pont in Seaford and retired as a cook at Dover Air Force Base. But all he really wanted to do was work with knives.
Since a day in 1953, when as a 10-year-old in Greenwood he made his first knife out of an old saw blade, he has been hooked on making, selling, collecting and sharpening knives.
“It was a hobby of mine as a kid, and I even liked it more than fishing,” he said. “I always dreamed of making a living from knives.
“I wasn’t a farmer like my father, grandfather even great-grandfather,” he said.
It took a while and many turns to make that dream become a reality. Now Willey, with his characteristic beard and soft-spoken ways, is known throughout southern Delaware as the preeminent knife man. Willey Knives customers include more than 45 restaurants in the Cape Region and more than 40 in the Dover area. For the past 40 years, outdoorsmen, collectors, cooks and even hair stylists (he also sells scissors) have been singing the praises of Willey Knives: the two words have become synonymous for anyone who needs sharp, high-quality knives.
Willey’s faith has played an important role in his life, the way he does business and the way he treats his customers. His business card is evidence of that, as it contains the words “Hebrews 4:12.”
The verse reads: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Willey operates his business out of a store in the large basement of the family home on Sugar Hill Road near Greenwood, across the road from where he grew up.
His family business started in 1970 when be began selling and sharpening knives at night after getting home from his Dover Air Force Base job. He officially opened his store three nights a week from 7 to 9 p.m. in November 1975.
He said since then, the years have flown by. When he retired from his job in Dover, his dream was finally realized – he was making his living in his knife store, one of the few in the state.
His daughter, Geri, who began working in the family business when she was 5 years old, went to college, received a business degree and went to work in a bank. “We thought we had lost Geri, but the Lord told her to come back here,” she said.
She set up a new accounting system and the website. “She took over running the whole store,” he said. In 1996, hours were extended to Saturday.
The shop, with its hand-made wooden cases, now has more than 2,000 knives of every size and description, ranging in price from a $5 paring knife to $1,000 collector’s knives.
Willey’s wife Sylvia also works in the store, and his son, Matt, just left for a job in Milford last year. “He might come back,” Willey said with a smile.
Willey’s steadiest work is a job he didn’t realize existed – servicing restaurants with knives and sharpening.
He provides nearly 100 restaurants with rented knives every two weeks.
For Cape Region restaurants, he leaves at 8 a.m. on Thursdays and doesn’t get home until nearly 10 p.m., covering more than 110 miles. “I tell my wife not to hold dinner for me,” he said with a laugh.
A restaurant owner in Dover suggested he get into the renting business back in 1973. His first Cape Region restaurant was Adriatico Ristorante and Cafe, and the business has grown by word of mouth. Now, each restaurant he serves has its own box of knives.
“They saw the work we were doing and knew they were not getting work like this,” he said. “I’ve had people run me down on the street.”
The sharpening portion of the business could almost run 24 hours a day. Even when the store is closed on Monday, sharpening still takes place. The Willeys sharpen about 500 knives a week, some on machinery they fabricated.
Willey said he likes to buy and sell American products whenever possible, and he puts customer service above everything else, putting himself in the place of every customer.
Willey is as much at home in his knife shop as he is when he walks upstairs to his real home. “I had a goal and wouldn’t let go of it,” he said.