Spotlight: New York Nautical

Because this site focuses on news, the businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. The photographs for the “Spotlight” series are by Claudine Williams, who specializes in business, personal branding, and glamour portraits. She also dabbles in street photography for fun. Originally from Philadelphia, she has made NYC her home for the past seven years with her husband and son.

New York Nautical is an old company with a new owner, Fred Walley. But for this post, I spoke with the sales manager, Smitty (“that’s what everybody calls me”), who has been with New York Nautical for 36 years. “People are always a bit surprised when they find out I’m not a sailor,” he says. “I’ll get on a cruise ship but a small boat? You can keep that.”

How did New York Nautical get started?
It started way back, close to 100 years ago. In the 1960s, the name was changed from Wilfred O. White to New York Nautical, and it moved from Water Street to 140 W. Broadway. We moved to 158 Duane in 2004, and 200 Church two years ago.

What are you known for?
We sell navigational charts and publications, both for commercial use, such as for tugs and ships, and to people who just walk in. And because you can only sell so many charts, we’ve always sold novelty items to keep afloat.

So to speak… What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
The retail customers. They ask a lot of questions, and I learn from them like they learn from me.

Most popular item?
The chart of New York Harbor. Number 12327!

Most expensive?
Chelsea clocks. They start at $2,600. I haven’t sold one in a few years.

Least expensive item?
Flag pins for around a dollar. But we give away more of them than we sell! The guy started making them after 9/11, and we bought a lot of them.

Your very favorite item right now?
I’d have to say the charts. People come in or call looking for an area and I can tell them the number without looking it up. Someone asked for Spratly Island in the Pacific—it’s not bigger than a bed. And I found it.

Where do you source stuff?
Various companies, such as Paradise Cay and Authentic Models, approach us. They’ll email about something, but the problem with digital is that you can’t touch it, or see it, so I make them send one. Quality is the most important thing.

Tribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
When I started in 1980, it was mostly shoe factories on Duane. Rents were reasonable! In the last 10 years, it’s changed dramatically. Restaurants started popping up all over, and now it’s just buildings and more buildings. The major drawback is that mom and pops can’t afford it. We left Duane because the rent tripled.

How has New York Nautical changed?
There have been a lot of cutbacks. We had a staff of 10 when I started, now we’re down to two, but I’m hoping to add one. It’s a bit easier because now we print here the charts we used to have to stock.

What percentage of your business is local?
Very little. We do get walk-ins, but I don’t know where they’re from. They’re more into the gift items, something they can display somewhere.

Tell me a crazy customer story.
A few years back, a gentleman walked in 4:55 p.m., right when everyone was getting ready to go home. I offered to help, and he suggested taking home catalogs and coming back tomorrow. We got to talking: He was a former banker from Miami who wanted to take his family around the world. Anyway, the next day he comes in and asks for me. He was here from 10 or 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. I was pulling a lot of stock out of drawers. The then-owner asked why I was spending so much time with the guy. You know why? He spent close to $3,000—and that was when charts were $8.30 each!

Here’s another one. Around 1986 or 1987, another gentleman came into the store. “May I help you?” I said. He walked right by me to a Scottish gentleman who used to work here. “I’m not going to help you,” my colleague said. “Go back outside, then come back in, and that gentleman—meaning me—will help you.” I get a lot of that.

Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
Morgans, but it’s getting expensive—I don’t spend $10 on lunch. I go to some of the wagons. So many places around here are too expensive and not that good.

What does the future hold for New York Nautical?
Good question. We have a ten-year lease, so we’ll see what happens when that’s up. The new owner wants to go in a slightly different direction—add pictures, make it more of a gallery, with more on display—which I don’t totally disagree with.

What didn’t I ask?
When charts became out of date, we used to wrap new charts with them, or we just gave them away. Word got out and people would use them for projects or whatever. Well, Martha Stewart had someone come in once to get a lot of our old throwaway charts. She wallpapered a bathroom with them and put it in the magazine. People still come in asking for those exact charts! But now we only have throwaway ones if we print the wrong number or someone canceled an order.

Previously in this series:
••• Lance Lappin Salon
••• Joseph Carini Carpets
••• Donzella
••• A Uno
••• Balloon Saloon
••• Fountain Pen Hospital
••• Abhaya
••• Chambers Pottery
••• Square Diner
••• Langdon Florist
••• Tribeca Upholstery & Draperies
••• Double Knot
••• Philip Williams Posters

7 Comments

  1. Very cool! I really enjoyed this, Fountain Pen Hospital, and Philip Williams Posters in this series. Suggestion for a future one: The Mysterious Bookshop

  2. This was a superb interview. Loved the details about life in a changing neighborhood.

  3. Smitty is my youngest brother and I’m so proud of his longevity at New York Nautilus. He is very knowledgeable in nautilus terms and has helped me when I was trying to build a scale model boat the Bluenose.
    A few of my sailor friends uses New York Nautical for charts and maps for years.
    I’m so proud of Smitty in his ability to be so adept in the nautical arena. Keep up the good work!

  4. Lovely and interesting interview! Never been to New York but this made me want to go and see this nautical shop.

  5. Great feature, Erik!

  6. New York Nautilus was very interesting and always enjoy reading the personal remembrances! Never knew businesses like this existed.

  7. I have wandered in to the various locations over the years. I have purchased a few little items and have always been treated so well. Hope they manage to stay.

Comment: