By Ken Mammarella
Special to Delaware Business Times
The Feasel family has sold auto parts for nearly 100 years. The family business evolved from New Castle County’s largest auto supplier into an online vendor, specializing in vintage parts.
Jesse Feasel founded Jess Auto Supply in March 1919. The shop offered a wide selection of car parts as well as fishing rods and hunting licenses. In 1947, Feasel married Betty Williams, and the couple moved into a two-floor apartment above the store at Second and North Market streets.
When Jesse died in 1951, Betty took over the business. But she had some help from her son.
“Very tough and very stubborn,” said David Feasel, about his mother. “She was the smartest woman I know.”
Betty Feasel fought for laws to redefine auto parts as necessities so the store could open on Sundays. The shop opened “right after church,” David said.
David was a teen when he began officially working at the shop. He stepped up in 1967 after Betty had a stroke. He devoted countless hours to the store while finishing high school.
He recalled busy times in the 1960s and ’70s, when “people lined up 20 or 30 deep. We had all the hard-to-find parts. Catalogs we had memorized. And we could identify parts by sight.”
“If you walked in and wanted something current, you’d have to wait to get it from the warehouse,” said Duke Black, an antique car collector and customer for more than 50 years. “But if you wanted a vintage item, it would be right in stock.”
Duke, who runs Black’s Auto Sales near New Castle, owns seven antique cars, including a 1959 Lincoln with a brake booster bought from Jess Auto Supply.
The boom didn’t last. The 1968 urban riots struck at the same time that suburban shopping and corporate chains moved into the market.
To diversify, the family bought an adjacent tavern. David set up a pool league, which at its peak included
85 teams and 900 players.
In 2000, they faced a new threat: eminent domain. The Wilmington Renaissance Corp. wanted the valuable downtown land for redevelopment, and David said he was unable to rally neighbors against the proposal. Al’s Sporting Goods is still there. Berger Brothers moved to Edgemoor, and Kenyon Candy and Tobacco relocated to New Castle.
Jess Auto Supply moved to Elsmere and operated until July 13, 2012, when Betty died. “I was heartbroken,” said David. “I was done with it.” He auctioned off the stock and fixtures — but he kept his connections.When clients contact him, “I go online. I reach out to people I know. I call around.” And somehow he still turns up those hard-to-find vintage auto parts.
David has four children, including one named Jesse, and they’ve each helped with the business over the years. He pushed them toward other careers with more potential, he said.
For him, there’s still enough business to keep him interested.
“The little I do I have fun,” he said.