It would be possible to stumble across Willey Knives accidentally, but it’s not very likely.
Every day, lines of cars flow by not far away, from hordes of tourists heading to the beach on Route 16 to clumps of tractor-trailers and commuters riding each other’s bumpers up and down Route 13, but most of the drivers have no reason to suspect the little knife shop near Greenwood exists.
To notice it, a driver heading to the beach would have to take a right for no apparent reason on St. Johnstown Road just outside Greenwood, go down past the historic Methodist church and cemetery and out through the sparsely populated fields beyond, and then take another right on Sugar Hill Road. There, atop a slight rise surrounded by acres of crop fields sits a simple brick house and a small white shop with large black lettering on the side: “W.G. Willey KNIVES.”
It’s the unlikely headquarters of a cutlery enterprise with devoted fans from far beyond the state of Delaware.
In a February 2020 article about the shop’s 50th anniversary, Blade Magazine called Willey Knives “one of the premier retail cutlery establishments in the United States.” And more recently at the magazine’s 2021 Blade Show, which draws custom knife makers from around the world, Willey Knives took home the Industry Achievement Award.
A shop that surprises
A new visitor may hesitate in the driveway at Willey Knives and wonder where to go. The shop building sits dark; the only other option is a house nearby that doesn’t look much like a business. But like a hobbit hole, there’s more behind the door than meets the eye. A flight of stairs just inside the door leads you down to the basement, where cases of knives of all descriptions are spread out: kitchen knives, hunting knives, pocket knives, collectible knives and more.
Gerald Willey founded the business in the 1970 and it remains a family enterprise, with his son Matthew Willey handling knife-sharpening for restaurant clients and daughter Geri Elliott running the shop and helping with deliveries. It’s a family with a recent major loss: Gerald’s wife of 58 years, Sylvia Willey, who also worked in the business, died in June.
Walking into a knife shop, family owned or otherwise, is not an experience you can get in many other places in the area. There are a couple of custom knife-makers in the area who sell online at a smaller scale, like Kalmus Knives in Arden or Shed Knives in Dover. And there are more distant knife shops like Country Knives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. You can, of course, find knives in malls or big box stores, or hunting-focused chains like Cabela’s, but a brick and mortar shop on Delmarva with a primary focus on knives is unusual.
“Nothing compares to this in a sporting goods store,” Gerald Willey said of the selection in the shop. It’s a strong statement, but it doesn’t come across as brash, more as an explanation of the industry. After 51 years in the knife business, he knows what he’s talking about.
Willey, a grandfather, looks the part. He has a kind face framed by long white sideburns, and a gentle voice to go with it. He’s not given to hype, but he radiates a quiet pride about his work.
Small brick and mortar stores like his have often been unable to compete with big box retailers or online shopping services like Amazon. But Willey Knives has found its niche. It does offer sales through its website, and some people ship knives to be sharpened, Elliott said, but a lot of sales are local. They work with about 90 area restaurants to sharpen kitchen knives, and people walk in every day to buy knives or get them sharpened.
“Our sharpening service brings a lot of people,” Gerald Willey said. “We sharpen all kinds of scissors. In fact a lot of … beautician shops. We do several different styles of serrations on serrated knives, which a lot of places can't sharpen.”
Some knife manufacturers have also referred customers to Willey Knives for sharpening, Elliott said.
And business has boomed during COVID. Elliott said it was one of their best years ever.
“In that summer of COVID (in 2020), we sold more of the higher end kitchen knives because people weren’t eating out as much.”
In fact, business is so good, she said, that for the most part they aren’t taking on new commercial clients.
Collectors drive from surrounding states, too.
“We have such a large selection of German and Japanese cutlery that, you know, they can’t just go somewhere and pick up and feel,” Elliott said.
The store's inventory these days is made up of commercially available knives. If you’re hoping to get a custom knife made by Gerald Willey, your odds aren’t good, to put it mildly. There’s a waiting list, and they don’t take new orders.
“I probably won’t live long enough to finish the list,” Gerald Willey said.
How it all started
Gerald Willey grew up in a farmhouse across the field from where the knife shop now sits. He never got any training in knife making, but he was intrigued by knives at a young age and he had a natural gift.
“Ever since a little kid, I’ve always enjoyed knives,” he said.
At 10 years old in 1953, “I saw my dad sharpen some knives for hog killing. And after he got done, and left the shop, I went over and sharpened the knife on the grinder like he did.” Once he finished the sharpening process, using an oilstone and wiping the blade off with a leather strap, “it would shave your arm.” He didn’t just sharpen knives, though; he fashioned his first knife out of an old saw blade.
He pulled that original knife out now and put it on the counter. It was simple, but clean and functional; a real knife and not the kind of thing you’d expect a kid to turn out on his first attempt.
“It had to be a gift from the Lord,” he said of his talent.
“By 1973, they got better,” he said, putting a couple more knives on the counter, far more sophisticated in craftsmanship and with his state of Delaware-shaped trademark on the blades.
His career then took a detour. “This Vietnam thing got hot,” he said. He served four years in the Navy as a cook, and said he really enjoyed that work.
When he got back, he built his shop, but didn’t have enough money to buy the equipment he needed, so he got a job as a civilian cook at Dover Air Force Base, where he worked for decades. That allowed him to build up the knife business on the side. He would open the shop several days a week at night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and then part of the day on Saturday.
At the same time, he designed and built some of the machines he needed to do special grinding.
“I enjoyed all of it,” he said.
How does an isolated shop get so much business?
Not only does Willey Knives rely mostly on one product, customers have to go out of their way to get to the location.
“God has blessed us with the customers he sends us because we are off the beaten path,” Elliott said.
They’ve beaten the odds by years of building their reputation through word of mouth as the business grew from a side enterprise. For decades, Willey Knives showcased its knives at a booth at the state fair and offered sharpening services there, which helped get their name out. Now, many customers hear about them from others.
One of those who met the Willeys at the state fair and came away impressed was Mark Andrew of Federalsburg. He and his father had never heard of Willey Knives, but after running across the display at the fair they visited the shop in Greenwood. They became lifetime customers. That was years ago — on one visit, Andrew remembers seeing baby Matthew Willey, who is now in his 30s, in a bassinet on the counter.
What really draws Andrew, aside from the broad range of knives, is the kind of people the Willeys are and their customer service.
“When you’re the customer there and they’re waiting on you, you’re the only one in the store,” he said, even if there’s a crowd.
“Their reputation is just taking exceptionally good care of their customers,” said C.J. Buck, CEO of Buck Knives, whose company has worked with Willey Knives for years. “So knives are a very, very personal experience … the purchase process itself becomes very personalized.” Many people, he said, would rather shop at a place where they have a relationship, and can get educated about the knife as they make a decision.
“That’s the strength that Willey Knives brings to the table is that passion, that long term, multi-generational … passion for customer service.”
His own connection with Willey Knives is multi-generational. Buck said his father used to go to the shop’s open house, and now Buck will be attending this year.
Kevin Reading, co-owner and chef at Brick Works Brewing and Eats in Smyrna and Long Neck, and Abbott’s on Broad Creek in Laurel, uses Willey’s sharpening service and also buys knives there. He’s been a customer for nearly 25 years and said Willey Knives has an amazing array of kitchen-centric equipment.
“He has such an old-world knowledge on things, and he has such an old-school way of doing business that has transferred down to his kids,” Reading said. During the Christmas season, he gives his employees gift certificates to Willey Knives, and it’s one of their favorite gifts, he said.
In his 45-odd years in business, Reading said, “I’ve worked with many, many people that are craftsmen, purveyors, and (Gerald Willey) is absolutely one of my favorite, and I have the utmost respect for him.”
Also, although the internet can compete with knife retailers, it does help Willey Knives. Their business, as uncommon as it is, stands out and Google takes searchers right to them. And almost every one of the more than 100 Google reviews is 5 stars.
“Our whole family had fun time here,” one reviewer wrote. “Mr. Willey and his family have a passion for what they do and it shows. He spent a long time with us explaining the differences in some of the kitchen knives and made recommendations based on what we were looking for. I recommend stopping by if you are in the area, it is worth your time!”
Despite the industry moving more online, C.J. Buck said, “there’s still that group of people that want to go into a store. They want to touch and feel the numerous samples of what they want to buy, and pick the one that feels the best to them. And you just, you can’t do that online.”
All those factors have created generations of customers.
“Some of my favorite stories, I think, (are) guys that have come in and bring their kid in to buy their first knife,” Elliott said. “And they’ll tell me a story of their dad bringing them in and Dad sold them their first knife … and they’ll make comments, how Dad took the time with them, you know, even if they were just 10 years old.”
“The bottom line is, treat people the way you would like to be treated,” Gerald Willey said.
Upcoming open house
If you want to check out the business for yourself, Willey Knives’ Fall Open House is an annual tradition and it’s happening this Saturday, Oct. 16 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The event will include special guest C.J. Buck, CEO of Buck Knives, who will answer questions and sign Buck knives. There are also blacksmithing demonstrations, free engraving on Benchmade Knives, a chance to build your own Swiss Army Knife, live music, free food and drinks, drawings and giveaways and more.
Location: 14210 Sugar Hill Road, Greenwood, DE 19950
For more information, go to willeyknives.com.