Looking around my shop, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time D.E.L.S. wasn’t around. This place has been the heart of my family for three generations, but as a new generation grows into leadership and management, I feel compelled to tell the story of how D.E.L.S. came to be, and that story begins with my father, Louis Edward Brown.
My dad was born in 1935. He would be 83 this year. Dad started out as a fish cutter in New Bedford, but he knew he wouldn’t stay there forever. I think he was drawn to New Bedford Coastal Fisheries because of his love of the ocean. Growing up on the coast, dad was raised on New Bedford’s rich, nautical traditions - from the food to the stories and, importantly, the handicrafts.
While he was working at the fishery, dad met Louie Correia, a local artist and photographer who was obsessed with the stories and crafts surrounding New Bedford’s famous whaling industry. Mr. Correia introduced my dad to scrimshaw, “the art of etching,” which is a time-honored Yankee tradition that was historically practiced by whalers as a pass-time. However, with the death of the whaling industry, very few artisans continued to practice their heirloom handicrafts. Still, my dad was a clever guy, and he knew that tourists and other collectors were still looking for scrimshaw, even though it was growing harder and harder to find.
But dad saw an opportunity - Moby Dick Marine in Downtown New Bedford sold raw, unpolished whale teeth. With a little work, those cheap souvenirs could be transformed into something beautiful and precious. So dad loaded up on whale teeth and purchased a few tools - a bandsaw, sanders and polishing wheels, and got to work. He figured that the market for smaller, scrimshawed trinkets would be much more lucrative and less competitive than full-size whale teeth, so he started cutting the raw material down into smaller shapes to turn into jewelry. That’s how our first scrimshaw pendant was created, and it was a hit. Not bad for a little project in the cellar of my childhood home on Middleboro Road.
It wasn’t long before dad realized he needed more room for his business - that and mom was getting real sick of all the dust coming up from the cellar, so dad moved his scrimshaw operation to the small boat shed on the property. As I got older, I grew more and more interested in dad’s business. I went from sitting on the sidelines to sanding cross cuts by hand and preparing them for polish, and by age 11, I was hooked. I was part of the team, helping dad cut down and prepare the teeth for etching. We made earrings, tie tacks, cufflinks and other small jewelry items, all decorated with traditional motifs like lighthouses and whaling ships.
Dad was right about the market demand. After only a few years, he realized he had to fully commit to his scrimshaw project. He quit his job to become a bonafide entrepreneur at the helm of his new company - D.E.L.S., a name that he and mom thought up from the first letters of their kids’ names: David, Eric, Linda and Steven. It was official, he was living the American Dream.
When it came time to grow D.E.L.S. further, dad knew to surround himself with good, quality people - people he knew and trusted. He hired my uncles Freddy and Ray and moved operations from the backyard boat shed to a large retail and manufacturing building down the road. At the new location, dad was able to expand his product offerings from just scrimshaw jewelry to other nautical trinkets as well as brass and even coffee tables. Business was booming, and he hired another handful of employees, but it wasn’t long before dad started setting his eyes on new horizons.
In the same way that dad got into scrimshaw, dad spent a lot of time looking for other industries that had high demand and low availability. He started a parking lot line-painting business, because no one was painting parking lot lines. He loved Chow Mein sandwiches, but no one was selling them in Freetown, so what did he do? He opened a breakfast and lunch counter serving up American and Chinese food right next door to D.E.L.S. I think I ate a Chow Mein sandwich every day for a year after dad opened that joint.
When I graduated high school in 1975, I didn’t even pause to catch my breath. Every day I was at D.E.L.S., working and making money for the family business. I loved it. I had a car, I had friends and family. I had a great job. I had everything a kid could ever need.
Two years later, I got the call that my dad had been in a car accident. I wasn’t ready to be the boss. All these years later, I still don’t feel ready to be the boss, but you have to play the cards you’re dealt, and that was that. I miss my dad every day, and I am so grateful for the gift, no, the legacy that he built for our family. I wish my dad could be here to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up at D.E.L.S., but I know he is watching, and I know he is proud.
In honor of my dad’s memory, I want to start a new tradition at D.E.L.S. this year - his birthday, July 25th, will now be known as Founder’s Day. Of course, we plan to run some special promotions, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the strong and dedicated family in all of our lives who took risks and sacrificed to build a better future for their children. Thanks dad. <3
- David W. Brown