Written on June 12, 2011
Yesterday I picked up this handy little tool for stitching straps onto my hand planes. It is a lock stitching awl, and I honestly don’t remember the last time I was this excited about a new tool. I got it at Hamilton Marine in Portland. I love marine supply stores - the way they smell like fiberglass resin and new electronics, and the partially organized chaos of gear that inhabits every aisle.
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately shopping around at such stores. Not because I finally got a boat unfortunately - but to browse wood finishes, epoxy, brass hardware, etc. for hand planes. And it has been bringing back memories.
In high school I worked for the marine supply giant Defender Industries. Defender is a family run mail order business, but they used to have a retail location next to the warehouse - which at that time was in New Rochelle, NY. Our neighbor was an owner and offered me a job at the store, in the rope department.
This section occupied a corner of the store with five aisles containing fenders, anchors, zincs, and mooring hardware. On one wall a break in the metal shelving gave way to a door leading into a shed-like hovel of a room with floor to (low) ceiling of spooled line - every line in every thickness you can imagine. And off of the first room was an even deeper hobbit hole housing bolts of Sunbrella fabric, canvas, and fiberglass cloth along all four walls, and a small rolling cutting table in the center. This plywood and two by four den was affectionately known as “The Rope Room” .
When I was hired the department was managed by a small, round man named David. He shared a last name with a prominent figure in the federal government who was said to be his Uncle. But David was clearly cut from a different cloth than his uncle. In fact (as I found out later) he was highly dependent on prescription as well as street narcotics. He would come into work in the morning flying high and have us both working on several projects at once. Then by lunchtime he would fall fast asleep in a chair hidden in the back corner of the rope room.
On one such afternoon our tall, gawky, intelligent, musician by night General Manager Eric walked in on him snoozing and fired him on the spot. Leaving me, at the ripe age of 17, solely responsible for the Defender Industries retail store rope department. It was a fun job, made more interesting by the rest of the thirty-something cast of characters who worked there.
“Noodles”, a balding, pale sailor who lived on his humble boat on a mooring off City Island, ran the hardware counter - a long glass counter backed by an enormous peg board stocked with every type of stainless and brass sail hardware amagineable. “Johnny Electric”, a short, long haired, Hispanic rocker dude with a wispy mustache was of course was in charge of the electronics department. Paint and resin was headed up by a young guy who’s name escapes me. But I remember his carefully feathered mullet and tight t-shirt-tucked-into-jeans like it was yesterday. He was into body building and was a highly trained martial artist, but despite a tough exterior was a polite and extremely knowledgeable source to customers.
The clothing department was run by a clean cut guy who kept to himself named Cedric. This was around the time Nautica was making the shift from boating gear to mainstream fashion, and Helly/Hansen was a brand completely unknown outside of the nautical community. The only ladies in the place were the cashiers - a big, smiling African-American woman and a thin, cynical white girl who were roommates and commuted up to New Rochelle from Co-op City.
We all communicated by walkie talkie. There were separate channels for the retail store and the warehouse, so the entire Defender inventory which covered tens of thousands of square feet was accessible simply by putting a call out on the radio and waiting for a response. In a place where it was amazing that anyone knew where anything was, you could pretty much satisfy any request that came in the door.
When stock got low I would stroll down to the warehouse with a list of items, gather them into the freight elevator, and they’d be loaded onto a van later that day bound for retail store. One day I got trapped in the elevator and one of several Jamaicans that worked up there pulling orders had to climb down the chute and pop the latch to get me out. They heckled me constantly after that (and before that too).
I did my best to keep my aisles stocked well, but with so many different shapes and sizes of each item it was nearly impossible. Especially since I had no clue what most of them were for. And I believe that’s how it is for most Marine Supply stores. They always seem to be staffed by a diverse cast of characters constantly fighting the tide of inventory, and barely keeping the millions of pieces in a somewhat orderly fashion on the shelves. And I love seeing that because it will always remind me of those days at Defender.
Filed in: Memoirs.