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 three decades and counting. “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.
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.
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.
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.
Photographs by Claudine Williams, who specializes in business, personal branding, and glamour portraits.