By Pat Reynolds
By boat or by car, a tour through Marina del Rey these days will illustrate that indeed, changes are underway. For residents who have been around a while, it can be uncomfortable. On the road it’s navigating orange cones set up for construction purposes and within the harbor, it’s boats being shuffled around while basins get overhauled.
In the local boating community the Marina del Rey redevelopment is fodder for complaint, heated discussion and debate. But recently, the news of a particular causality in the realty of this refit gave us all pause and was a bit of a shot in the guts.
When it was learned that the long standing Ships Store on Panay Way was going to close its doors after more than 40 years, local boaters let out a collective sigh of regret. Retail stores and businesses come and go, but none connected this little part of the world quite like this unique down-home boating hardware store. In a town whose physical layout doesn’t lend itself to any sort of intrinsic community, the Ships Store was a de facto hub – a place where boaters would run into each other and make contact.
But maybe more than its communal aspects, the sadness of the shop’s closing was brought on by what it represents – a corporate heart. The closing seems unsympathetic and uncompassionate – cold. But of course, these entities probably don’t know that this is a valued neighborhood outpost that reflects the character of a community and that community’s history.
“I first wandered into the Ships Store sometime in 1976 or ’77,” said longtime resident and local captain, Richard Schaefer. “It had been in existence barely 10 years then, but already seemed archaic. Not something passed its prime, but rather, a thing of the past, born old, comfortable and familiar – intentionally out of step with the world.
“When you stepped around the sleeping dog and entered the shop, the employees were usually found, holed up, inside the small rectangle of display cases and sales counters,” Schaefer continued. “Most times there were no falsely cheery greetings nor a droned, ‘May I help you?’ Instead, just the hint of a smile or the twinkle of the eye acknowledged your arrival.”
The word that the building that the Ships Store was in (with a number of other Marina businesses) would be torn down was around for quite sometime, but there was always attached talk of relocation contingencies. With that comfort embedded, it seemed sudden and jarring when owners hung a stark vinyl sign over the door reading, “Store Closing” in large black letters. To see the sign hanging crookedly was an empty end-of-an-era type feeling and a clear sign that progress harbors no sentimentality.
“Ships Store was the most active and warmest chandlery in the area,” said Rich Smith, a former employee of the Ships Store in 1976 and founder of Bluewater Sailing in Marina del Rey. “It was a real watering hole of sorts. The cast of characters working there and drifting in were almost up to a Cannery Row level.”
Personally, I learned about the Ships Store soon after I came to town. I was looking for some used part or something and someone said, “go over to the Ships Store, they have a bulletin board that everyone checks out.”
Tucked away down a side street was this inconspicuous store with an unleashed dog there to greet me. This wasn’t Boater’s World or West Marine, this was where the locals did business. The fellow behind the counter was not wearing a polo shirt with an embroidered logo – in fact I don’t believe he had on shoes. I had found my way to the heart of the boating community – a humble unaffected little store down a side street.
Later, as I became more involved with the local boating community, I would sometimes ask people to leave things at the store for me to pick up in lieu of having to meet a person at a given time. I wouldn’t think to do this anywhere else and I don’t believe I ever asked the owners if it was okay with them. It was this unspoken role as a center that the store possessed which made this kind of behavior normal and acceptable. It’s also why it’s sad to see this brand of intimacy go away.
The closing of the Ships Store doors is more than a town losing a shop that’s been around for a while. It’s the loss of a cog, a center and a part of a community’s soul.
Capt. Schaefer summed it up this way:
“The Ships Store, after more than 40 years of providing the material, as well as the spiritual things of boating and the sea, is dying – one markdown at a time. Shelves, once overflowing with necessities and dreams, are becoming barren. Each “ka-ching” of the register – a clock ticking toward midnight.
“What price is this ‘progress?’ I fear this never-ending pursuit of greater development and higher monetary returns will profit us little, and cost Marina del Rey another piece of its soul – one more fragment of its history – and we haven’t much left to spend.”