|Can the Chesapeake Bay compete with Florida, home of the all-you-can-eat nautical flea market buffet?|
by Jody Argo Schroath
Photo by Starke Jett
There I was, up to my elbows in used life-line stanchions and as happy as a pig in mud. Boy, I love a good bargain! And when that bargain involves stuff for my boat, I'm willing to go a long way and dig in deep. I know I'm not alone; there are plenty of fellowboaters out there who are as hungry as I am for a really good deal on everything from a five-pound shackle to a secondhand boat hook.
Now, if I were a cruising boater, I know just where I'd go to stuff myself silly on nautical bargains: Florida. Yup, the Sunshine State is to nautical flea markets and secondhand and consignment marine-equipment stores what the Food Network's Bobby Flay is to the throw-down cook-off--just about unbeatable. Still, I wondered whether the Bay could muster the marine-markdown chops to be a real contender.
The Florida competition is tough. Take the Dania Nautical Flea Market, for example. This event has gotten so big it's now held at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. Or the Pompano Beach-Lighthouse Point Nautical Flea Market, which draws thousands every January. In fact, you could spend the entire Florida winter going to big-dog nautical flea markets. And that doesn't even count consignment and used-gear emporiums--like Sailorman in Fort Lauderdale, Horne's Marine Salvage in St. Petersburg or Sailors Exchange in St. Augustine. Yup, trying to go toe-to-toe rail with that crowd would be like facing all of the Iron Chefs simultaneously-- and the secret ingredient was mullet!
Still, for those of us in the hunt for a good deal but deeply anchored in the Chesapeake mud, there is good news. Maybe they're not as big, and maybe they're not as plentiful, but nautical flea markets do appear every year here and there on the Bay, and there are at least four used-gear and marine consignment shops. Well, somebody was going to have to check them out. Somebody was going to have to decide whether the Chesapeake was ready for a marine markdown throw-down. It wasn't going to be Bobby Flay. It would have to be me.
So, this spring, I packed up a few possessions, consulted my eternally precarious personal checking account and set off for the first two nautical flea markets, held on succeeding weekends in May. Then I had to twiddle my thumbs for a few months until the last two came along in September--also held, oddly enough, on successive weekends. Clearly, it's a feast-and-famine thing. Finally, I set my sights on the Bay's secondhand boat-gear stores.
Mr. BB&T was still my friend after the first flea market, a "swap meet" at the Chesapeake Antique Boat and Marine Engine Show at Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Md. Oh, sure, there was plenty of old stuff there--you couldn't walk three feet without tripping over a group of guys bent over the back of a pickup truck, ruminating on its contents. Or a cluster of similar-looking guys gathered around one of the two dozen tables of old outboard engines, old outboard engine parts, old outboard engine literature. Or other gaggles of guys talking and nodding their heads in front of what I can--in my nearly total ignorance of the subject--only describe as big old marine engines, big old marine engine parts, big old . . . oh, heck, you get the picture. Great stuff to be sure and plenty of it, but not exactly what I was hoping to find--which was, for example, a used cheek block with bail on a one-inch track. But this was good too, only in a different way. Spending the day looking at nearly endless amounts of completely fascinating stuff you have not the slightest temptation to buy has its own special charm. And I was highly charmed. In addition to all this, Calvert Marine Museum was simultaneously hosting the Solomons Maritime Festival, which lent the day an additional charm that had to do with oyster-shucking, boating events and activities for the small fry.
Yankee Point Boat Auction and Nautical Flea Market was on my schedule for the following May weekend. And here I made a strategic mistake: I invited my husband Rick to come along. Rick is to rummaging around flea markets--nautical or otherwise--what a dark cloud is to a sunny day.
We arrived at Yankee Point Sailboat Marina in Lancaster, Va., in the middle of an auction of big hunks of old boat stuff--you know, where the auctioneer says, "What am I bid for these three boxes of who knows what, that old bag of rope and those four rusty anchors?" Now what right-minded bargain-hunter could resist a potential treasure like that, especially at the price, which was just edging past $2.50? Exactly, my Mr. Cumulonimbus. "We don't have room," is his mantra. So, I let this treasure slip through my hands and suggested that he go look at the boats that were going to be auctioned off later while I checked out the flea market tables. There were only about half a dozen of them, but I lingered over each one, scanning the contents carefully, weighing each item for its potential application on our 30-year-old Swedish sailboat. Finally, I settled on two bails for a one-inch track for $8. Not exactly what I was looking for, but maybe I can make it work. (Please note: "Maybe I can make it work" are, in fact, the six most dangerous words in bargain-hunting!) Rick soon returned, and we followed the progress of the boat auction until he finally lured me away by whispering, "Come on, let's go sailing." Who could resist that?
Summer was filled with long and happy sails, uninterrupted by the temptations of hunting up used goods cheap. It wasn't until Labor Day weekend that the next nautical flea market turned up on my schedule: the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Boat Auction and Nautical Flea Market. Since this involved a drive across the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore on the Saturday of the summer's last weekend, I left Annapolis in the early morning dark--so early that I arrived in St. Michaels two hours before the start of the flea market and five hours before the auction. Well, parking was easy. And so was getting a table for breakfast. Even then, I walked onto the grounds of the museum 45 minutes before the official start, but nobody seemed to mind. Besides, I soon discovered I wasn't the first one to arrive. The flea market tent was already doing a brisk business. There were some old outboard motors (what is it with those things?), a table plus a half-dozen boxes underneath it full of old boating books, and other tables crowded with old stove parts, old navigation flotsam and jetsam, lanterns and four big snatch blocks. Hah! I've always thought a nice big snatch block could come in handy . . . for something. I pored over the selection. I walked away. I came back. Snatch blocks are pretty expensive, I thought, but these are pretty cheap. I'll regret not having bought one of these. I bought one. (I took it home. I still can't get it open, but, of course, I still think I can make it work.) And I bought a book, Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers--a great book which I have already read but surely can press on someone who hasn't, like Mr. Thundercloud, who probably hasn't read any fiction since Lord of the Rings in college. Well, somebody else, then.
This was great, I was done with the flea market and it hadn't even opened yet. I whiled away the next couple of hours examining the boats that would be auctioned later in the day. A charming 1940s Comet. An exquisite Oxford 400. A Procraft bass and ski boat, dinghies, rowing shells, an antique ice scow. Dozens more, all great. All way too tempting. It was time for me to go. The cars were pouring in steadily as I toted my big snatch block and book back to the parking lot.
Maybe it's the classic boats. Maybe it's the cute-as-a-button town. Maybe it's just me. Yeah, probably. Whatever it is, the Reedville Antique & Classic Boat Show and Nautical Flea Market always sucks me in--and the money out of my wallet. I always find just the right stuff I didn't know I needed. It happened again this year.
The Reedville show and flea market, which followed the St. Michaels event by only a week, is a festive affair, with the antique and classic boats tied up to the docks behind many of the town's historic homes. Visitors stroll up and down the main street, find a number sign in the front yard that indicates this or that boat on their list, and then saunter back to the dock to take a look. The owners are usually aboard, so a visit is easy and the pace leisurely. The nautical flea market tables take up the front grounds of the Reedville Fishermen's Museum, with craft tables in a field across the street. The Reedville show is a satisfying mix of antique boat parts, newer used boat gear and books, magazines and boat-deco kitsch.
This year I hit pay dirt. Perhaps I should say the vendors hit pay dirt, since they got the pay and I got the Seth Thomas clock/barometer/tide clock set in rather scuffed up anodized aluminum, an air scoop for the forward hatch minus a couple of pieces (I was sure I could make it work), a nice crisp copy of Field Guide to Sailboats (which turns out not to have my boat in it, so it's already in the giveaway pile), two pelican hooks for when I redo the lifelines and a couple of fenders, because, like purses, you can never have too many.
All in all, it was a grand ending to my flea market research, though it is with some regret on my part--if not my husband's--that I must mention that the Reedville show and flea market may be on hiatus next year. Perhaps they'll change their minds, but in any case new nautical flea markets are likely to pop up to take its place. Just keep an eye on the Cruiser's Calendar and your local marina bulletin board.
My nautical flea market adventures done--and with my newly acquired pile of potentially useful items still piled on the dining room table--I next flirted with complete insolvency by visiting four of the Bay's profoundly individual secondhand stores, whose locations range from the Magothy River to Little Creek in Norfolk.
My first stop had to be Bacon & Associates in Annapolis. This was perhaps the 65th time I had walked into Bacon's, but this time I marched resolutely past the old-anchor aisle, ignored the used rigging hardware, blocks and electronics, nodded briefly to my old friends (the old heads and ovens), and made a beeline for the office, deviating only to dodge the inevitable big black sleeping dog along the way. This time I was on my way to see the big cheese, the top banana, the great panjandrum: Mrs. Bacon.
In case you just arrived from the planet Ork, Bacon's is to consignment sails what Oscar Mayer is to cold cuts, and--to risk belaboring the lunchmeat metaphor--Mrs. Bacon is its top dog (as in top hot dog, of course, not most important Labrador retriever). There are almost certainly more sails in Bacon's back room than in any other single location in the whole entire world--row upon long row of sails, stacked about an elephant and a half high, all indexed and cataloged in Bacon's own special way, which goes back to the business's earliest days (1959) in Western Massachusetts. Bacon's has been in Maryland since 1961 and in Annapolis since 1963. The current Legion Avenue store is its fourth location in Annapolis, and each store has been bigger than the one before it.
How many sails does Bacon's have? Nobody knows. They stopped counting long ago. "It's a meaningless figure," Mrs. Bacon responded when I asked her this question. "Either we can satisfy customers' needs or not." (If you talk with Mrs. Bacon for any length of time at all, you'll discover that she answers a lot of questions like this: pared down and practical, which, come to think of it, is not a bad physical description of Mrs. Bacon herself.)
All of Bacon's sails, as well as all of the other used marine items, are there on consignment. They don't own a single piece of the store's used inventory because they don't want to buy stolen goods and they don't want to encourage anyone to steal any for resale. Sometimes the sails are there for a while before they sell, though. "Every once in a while we get a call, 'I just got a check from you. What's it for?' " Mrs. Bacon said. Sometimes, too, Bacon's refuses to take a sail on consignment--for example, the one that was sent them from somewhere in the southern states that was made out of table oilcloth, all flowers and pretty patterns on one side and all white fuzzy flannel on the other. "We mailed it back."
Although Bacon's meat and potatoes is used sails, the store has no mean collection of other consignment items, as well. Sharing the sails room are large items such as masts, booms, bow pulpits and boat stands. If you don't see what you want, all you have to do is ask one of Bacon's associates--all liveaboards or at least sailboat owners themselves. Up front, where most of us bargain hunters do business, are shelves of vastly miscellaneous boat gear, roughly categorized, as well as some new items, such as compasses and sailing hardware. Used dinghies are out front.
Before moving on from Bacon's, I'd like to explain something. Mrs. Bacon does have a full name, which is Merilyn Dixie Bacon. But I'm not going to call her that; she'll always be Mrs. Bacon to me . . . and probably to you. It happened this way: Mrs. Bacon and her husband Douglas had always been equal partners in the business, sharing the responsibilities and decisions. When he died in 1982, she became the sole owner. At that time, she explained, women in boating were often marginalized or ignored, so she asked herself what she could do to be taken seriously. She decided always to use the name Mrs. Bacon, which would put her on a more formal footing. It has worked out very well, she says. Bacon's is still going strong, and so is Mrs. Bacon.
Up on the Magothy River, just a few miles north of Annapolis and at the end of several winding roads, sits Fairwinds Marina, a place only slightly less--or more--marvelous than Bacon's, depending on whether you are a sailor or powerboater. Shucks, it doesn't really matter which you are. You don't even have to like boats. You are just going to love this place. Where else are you going to find about 150 old outboard motors all suspended from the ceiling, including a 1910 Evinrude? Or an old G-3 Swift Big Bee hydrofoil boat? Or how about an old stuffed fish, a skiff, decoys, clocks, old advertising banners and the hatches from an old Liberty ship? Remember, you're looking up to see all this stuff. Down below, within arm's reach, are so many old boat this-and-that's that an incautious person might fall in and never work her way back out. There are king-size wooden blocks that came out of a warehouse in Eastport; the fighting chair that was featured (briefly) in the movie Failure to Launch; enough scrap teak and mahogany and other good woods to build a bathroom; hundreds of bits of dodger and Bimini superstructure. (One such piece, by the way, is now the Rube Goldberg shift extension for my sailboat kicker--see, I knew I could make it work. Did I mention I had been here a few dozen times before, too?) If you find yourself yearning for an antique motor-stand, you can take one home for only $49.95. Or how about three dozen black-on-brown flower pattern cushions? You'll find them right over there.
Yes, what started as a few pigeon bins of old boat stuff--much of it salvaged from derelict boats--is now 2,000 square feet of potentially useful, or at least decorative, marine items. These guys just really love old stuff! And by these guys, I mean the Pumphrey brothers, Gary, Rick and Jim, who inherited Fairwinds Marina from their parents, Gil and Ethel Pumphrey. The business has been in the family since 1959. Now Fairwinds is four businesses in one: the marina and boatyard, which has been greatly expanded and modernized over the years; outboard engine sales and service; the store, which includes new parts, "new old stock" and all that used boat stuff; and internet sales, which is how Fairwinds now sells most of its truckload buy-outs.
Gary started buying bulk items in the 1960s, Rick's wife Karen told me. Karen works at Fairwinds--everyone who works at Fairwinds is family, up to and including the third generation. Marine stores going out of business or discontinuing a line find a ready buyer in Fairwinds. The Pumphreys also attend a lot of auctions and purchase a lot of obsolete parts. "That's what we seem to like," she says.
What they don't seem to like is throwing things away. When Karen and Rick cleaned out their basement and tossed out the colorful crab candlestick, they were only mildly surprised to find it the next day as the centerpiece of a new display of found beach items created by Gary and now to be seen on the display case nearest the entrance. You won't want to miss it.
When I arrived at S.O.B. (Small Open Boats) in Port Republic, Md., to visit owner Ken Spring and his consignment shop, I found that Spring was more keen to show me an old boat he's working on than his small and thoroughly idiosyncratic consignment inventory. Make no mistake, Spring has every right to be proud of his boat-in-progress and wood shop--he does absolutely beautiful work, but I was hell-bent to bargain hunt.
S.O.B. used to rent out space to people who wanted to restore their own boats and needed some help, but Spring soon gave that up as a bad deal--people left their boats there for months at a time and neglected to pay for the space. Now he does restoration and modification work on boats of his own choosing and operates his consignment shop. That unlikely part of the business started when a couple of shipwrights who were helping Spring suggested starting a store so they could unload their old boat junk. "It's turned out to be about half our revenue," Spring admitted, once we had left the boat shop, passed the neighbors' potbelly-pig pen and walked up the steps to the office/consignment shop. S.O.B. is tucked away in the trees off St. Leonard Road, about fifteen miles north of Solomons, Md.
Spring, the son of a cabinetmaker ("I thought everyone grew up with a lathe in their basement"), grew up on Cape Cod and has been working on boats since age 10--but never for a living, until now. He retired about five years ago as a research scientist for the National Institutes of Health and finally turned to what he has always loved best: boats.
"You just missed a shipment of Israeli gas masks," he had told me as we entered the consignment shop, "and a Geiger counter." Darn! But he still had running lights from an old skipjack, and lots of rudders. "I haven't sold one since I started," he said. And an oval catboat portlight. "We'll never sell it." He didn't seem to mind much. He walked over and picked up a radio direction finder. "You don't see many of those anymore." Then he moved on to stainless-steel ice tongs with an ice pick in the handle. "This is kind of unusual." Next he pointed to the exhaust dumps for an old Sea Ray. "They'll be here when we close." Spring does manage to sell plenty of items, though. At one point, for example, he had more than 200 propellers--and sold nearly all of them on eBay to a shipyard in Alaska.
Fall had settled in and my bank account was looking pretty sere too by the time I walked into Salty Dog in Norfolk, my final Bay entry in the secondhand-store throw-down. And more's the pity. Mike Miller's consignment/new/scratch-and-dent boating emporium is the kind of place you can spend a lot of money saving money, if you know what I mean. Like all the secondhand boat-gear stores on the Bay--and quite possibly everywhere else too--Salty Dog is a reflection of its owner's worldview. And Miller's worldview is simple: It's got to be useful, and it's got to go below retail. "If I can't beat the big boat stores, I won't sell it." Forcing myself to concentrate on our conversation and not the store's tantalizing inventory, I learned that Salty Dog is--and was in its first version--the only consignment shop in the southern Bay. Miller closed his original Norfolk shop in 1995 to return to cruising. He opened a similar shop in Puerto Rico, but soon traded it for a Morgan 46. After several more years of cruising he returned to Norfolk and opened another Salty Dog in a small shopping plaza within walking distance of Little Creek. That was three years ago. Since then, business has increased steadily as cruising sailors have passed the word on their way up and down the coast.
Unlike the Bay's other secondhand boating-gear shops, Salty Dog doesn't do eBay. Again, it's a matter of philosophy. "I prefer to deal with customers face to face because a lot of them don't know what they need." Miller is happy to give advice, but he will charge you five cents. If you don't have the money to spare, you can just use the nickel Miller has taped to the front counter with the sign: Rub for advice. I rubbed it. "Let me tell you the difference between sailors and powerboaters," he said, picking up a small alligator clamp. "A sailor will look at this one, which costs $1.50, and then pick up the next size down, which costs $1.25, and say, 'I wonder if I can get by with this one.' A powerboater will come in and say, 'I don't know what size I need, so I'll take six of those and a dozen of those.' "
Well, it was finally time to wrap up this nautical throw-out throw-down and decide how well Chesapeake Cheap really measured up to Florida Mega-Markdown.
First, the nautical flea markets. The Bay's boat-gear yard sales were perhaps few and far between, but on the other hand each one was just a bonbon to a bigger event--Reedville's Antique & Classic Boat Show and Calvert Marine Museum's Antique Boat and Marine Engine Show, for example, or Yankee Point's and Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum's boat auctions. In other words, on the Bay you could have brought home both an Oxford 400 and 400 pounds of old boating books. You may not always have found what you were looking for at a Bay nautical flea market, but you would have a great time not finding it.
The Bay's score in the used-gear-store category was much stronger. In fact, in the case of specialty consignment categories like Bacon's sails, you probably won't find any store better anywhere. As for the other stores, each one was an adventure in itself, a reflection of its owners, from Fairwinds' exuberant collection of old motors and parts to Salty Dog's militant practicality.
So who would take home the secondhand loving cup? Well, when it comes right down to it, I decided, it's all a matter of taste. My advice (and feel free to send me those nickels) is to get out there and sample the Bay's wares for yourself. Visiting secondhand boating-gear shops on the Bay would be a great way to while away the winter. And come this spring, making the rounds of the nautical flea markets would present some great new Bay boating destinations. All of the Bay's nautical flea markets are accessible by boat--and that's more than you can say about the other guys. As Julia Child might have said: Boat appetit!
WHERE TO FIND IT
Nautical Flea Markets
• Solomons Maritime Festival (includes Chesapeake Antique Boat and Marine Engine Show and Swap Meet), Calvert Marine Museum, Patuxent River, Solomons, Md.; 410-326-2042; www.calvertmarinemuseum.org; Saturday, May 10.
• Yankee Point Boat Auction and Nautical Flea Market, Yankee Point Sailboat Marina, Myer Creek off the Corrotoman River, Lancaster, Va.; 804-462-7018; www.yankeepointmarina.com; Saturday, May 10.
• Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Boat Auction and Nautical Flea Market, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Miles River, St. Michaels, Md.; 410-745-2916; www.cbmm.org; Saturday, August 30.
• Reedville Antique & Classic Boat Show and Nautical Flea Market, Reedville Fishermen's Museum, Great Wicomico River, Reedville, Va.; 804-453-6529; www.rfmuseum.org; according to museum director Chuck Backus, this event may not be held in 2008.
Used-Boat-Gear and Consignment Stores
• Bacon & Associates Inc., 116 Legion Ave., Annapolis, Md.; 410-263-4880; www.baconsails.com; Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
• Fairwinds Marina Inc., 1000 Fairwinds Dr., Annapolis, Md.; 410-974-0758 or 301-261-1548; www.fairwindsmarina.com; Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
• Salty Dog, 9557 Shore Dr., East Beach Shops, Norfolk, Va.; 757-362-3311; daily 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
• S.O.B. (Small Open Boats), 2970 St. Leonard Rd., Port Republic, Md.; 410-586-2900; www.sobs.us; Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.