Ghost town renegade

An owner of 93-year-old store stands tall as the neighborhood dies around him

Aug 24, 2011 at 12:00 am
Dave Zammitt stands before the antique wood cabinets in his store.
Dave Zammitt stands before the antique wood cabinets in his store.

The stench fouls the wind, bringing reminders of what this place has become.

It's the smell of raw sewage, the stink of compost, the fumes from those dirty clouds billowing from the smokestacks. It's the smell signifying that this is Delray.

After so many years here, Dave Zammitt doesn't notice it anymore. He's the owner of Lockeman's Hardware and Boats on West Jefferson Avenue near West End Street, seated in the closest thing to the center of town in a town that's gone away. 

But visitors still wince. "I have customers that'll come in the first or second time and say, 'How can you do it here?'"

Lockeman's has been in the same building since 1918, when Delray was a small village recently swallowed up by Detroit, which over the coming decades would herd as many industries and factories into this riverfront community as it could. Ever since, just about anyone who could leave did, and most still here are so poor they have little choice but to live in a toxic place.

"This area is truly the dump of the world," says Dave, 59. "And nobody cares."

He began working at the boat store in 1975. "I thought this would be my job for a couple years, then I'd go get a real job," he says with a laugh. The store's founder died, soon his son did too, and an out-of-state relative who inherited it told Dave to buy it or else he'd close it. Dave, who'd started as a mere apprentice here, became its owner.

These days it's one of the last mom-and-pop businesses left in Delray. And unlike just about every other small business that was here or won't be much longer, it's not only staying put, but actually expanding.

Lockeman's sells and services boats and their motors, but carries a full hardware selection too. The store seems small and out of place among the industries defining this area, but once there were marinas all along the riverbank, and a boating business made sense here. With the marinas and the boaters now long gone, nearly all their customers drive in from somewhere else, many from as far away as Toledo or Brighton, or Downriver, where the Zammitts live. If the store moved, some of their customers would have even longer drives to make. So here they stay.

The store is so old that the top drawers on the aged wood cabinets behind the counter are labeled for harness rings and belt lacing, supplies for the horses that people still used to get around when it opened. It's so old that Dave filled a glass cabinet with antiques and artifacts he'd found around the shop over the years. "My museum," he calls it. 

Among them is a framed photo of the front display window, taken in 1941 to commemorate the store's name being placed in gold leaf letters on the glass. That day, the window was crowded with piles of roller skates and a boat motor that sold for less than $50. And reflected faintly in the glass were vague images of a thriving downtown Delray. 

The man who took that picture accidentally preserved a piece of history. He probably never imagined that, in his lifetime, the spot where he was standing would become the center of a ghost town where the only thing remaining from that day would be this store.


The few buildings left on this main road, the empty ones with little ornate touches to the brickwork that show their era's craftsmanship, are suddenly being bulldozed and cleared. 

"It's going to be farmland pretty soon," says Dorothy Zammitt, Dave's wife. "They're tearing down buildings like you wouldn't believe." The couple thinks it has something to do with plans for a new bridge to Canada to be built here. And they welcome it. 

"The more bridges the merrier," she says. "We need another bridge 'cause it's not the 1900s anymore," Dorothy says. "We need bridges that can get trucks over the border faster."

A new bridge, she hopes, would corral and reroute the big trucks that now rumble past all day, taking detours they shouldn't. "You see all my cracked windows? That's from stone chips from the trucks," Dorothy says. "We've got trucks going down in urban areas, busting out windows, damaging cars. They need to get them out of the urban city and get them into a place where you can inspect them, transport them and get them out of there."

Dorothy, 56, was here all the time in the old days. "I'm a hardware diva," she says. Then last year she found out she had two kinds of cancer, and though the treatments seem to be working, she can't be on her feet much right now. So she comes in just a few hours a day.

She answers phones, or points customers to a particular aisle, but then sits down when the tiredness takes over. "I'm still in chemo," she says. "I'm still disabled. I can't stand for a long time."

She's still around enough to put her stamp on things, though. Recently she added a lower-cost fishing supplies section, since neighborhood fishermen stop in asking for things all the time. They're among the few things locals come in for.

"You've got to know who's going to be buying your stuff," she says. "Nobody in this neighborhood is going to spend $5, but they will spend 55 cents for a bobber. If I price it at $5, none of my customers here in this neighborhood will buy it."

She's got worms, hooks, bobbers; all on the cheap for people who still dare to fish out of the river that passes by all the factories on the shore.


He was that kid from the neighborhood who was always hanging around. 

Daron Colbert, now 11, started showing up when he was just 5 years old. "He used to be known as 'dirt baby'," Dorothy says. "We had a pile of dirt and he would roll in it, and he would be so dirty."

Colbert started asking them for things to do around the shop. Dorothy refused. "When you're 5 and you're playing in a pile of dirt you don't really get a job," she says. "But he talked to my son and said, 'One day I'm gonna work here.' At 5 years old."

He hung around the store because it's the one hub of normal activity near him. His house, just down the street, has fields for its neighbors. He can't exactly wander onto Zug Island to play, and the empty houses that dot the blocks provide their own dangers, like the menacing man who leaped out of a vacant home one time, trying to snatch him and his fleeing friends.

"We don't have playgrounds, we don't have schools, we have kids walking around," Dorothy says. "This is not a safe neighborhood for them to be walking around."

So the couple eventually found little odd jobs for him to do around the shop. "He waters my plants, he helps me take out garbage, he helps detail boats, whatever he can do, and I pay him off in Slim Jims and Doritos," Dorothy says.

He's got a kid's-eye view of Delray, the perspective of someone who's never known a real neighborhood. "I like living here, but I think it needs more houses," Colbert says. "They need to build some stuff. We've got a lot of empty lots around."

The adults, though, know those lots are here to stay. "The odds of this area really coming back single-family residential, as much as I'd like to see it, ain't happening," Dave says. "There's no way I'm going to convince a young couple to come down here and buy a house for whatever price, and raise a family with all the different smells."

Yet he stays. And though the neighborhood may be dying, Dave still treats those left like neighbors, including the elderly people nearby who call him to fix little things in their battered old homes, including the dirty kid who needed someplace safe where he could sometimes hang out.

"The people that are left here are pretty much people that have been here their whole life, so they know Lockeman's, they know us," he says, standing outside as the summer heat stirs the sour air. "The neighborhood watches out for me, and I watch out for the neighborhood."