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Niche Market | New York Nautical

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

WNYC
New York Nautical is decorated with with sailing paraphernalia. (Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC)

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity.

New York Nautical
158 Duane Street
New York, NY 10013

Inconspicuously tucked into the ground floor of a residential building in TriBeCa, New York Nautical is a favorite haunt of sailors, ship captains and those with an aesthetic nostalgia for the ocean. The business, which has been in existence for about 80 years, is jam-packed with sailing paraphernalia — model ships, compasses, sextants, thick books of federal shipping regulations, rows of tide tables, coast pilots and light lists that let sailors know about lighthouses and buoys in any given area. But the specialty here is nautical charts that detail the depth of oceans (in fathoms) over the entire sea world. (In case you’re wondering, American charts cost $21).

The store manager, a self described “landlubber,” James “Smitty” Smith, has worked here for 30 years. Born in Brooklyn, Smitty started off as part-time summer help with zero knowledge of the seas, but now, he knows “quite a bit — more than I let on!” Smitty shed some light on the business as he went through wide, thin drawers containing stacks of charts, putting together an order for a ship sailing all the way down the East Coast and over to Africa that had requested 219 charts.

James "Smitty" Smith, manager of New York Nautical

What do you sell here at New York Nautical?

Most of what we sell is charts and publications for navigation. We do a lot of commercial, and we do a lot of retail. We have a lot of walk-ins — people with small boats and yachts. We have British and American charts that cover the world. Whatever you need chart-wise, we supply it. We supply mostly paper — they have a lot of electronic charts, but I don’t sell too many electronic charts because I get very little calls for them. Ninty percent of the people that sail prefer paper. Electronics is nice but the problem with electronics is that when you’re out at sea, sometimes your equipment can go out. That can be a little scary. A lot of the big ships they use a lot of electronics, but still, even though they’re a big ship, the captain insists on having paper. So, now this is mostly their backup — before it was what they always used.

What about those instruments on the wall — the barometers and clocks?

Barometers they use because they need to know their temperature, what the barometric pressure is, to find out if it’s going to be raining. But all ships must have a clock on it. Must. They must know what time it is at all times, basically to help navigate. Think of it this way: Way back when they used something called a sextant, and they really needed to know what time it was so they could align the sight and know where they were located — they read the sun and the stars. Now everybody has GPS, but even that fails sometimes. What’s good about the business is most of the young sailors are learning how to use a sextant, it’s coming back into fashion. Electronics are nice, don’t get me wrong, but when the electronics fail, you either sit and wait, (laughs) or you figure it out. So people want to figure it out. They don’t want to sit and wait no more.

Who is your clientele?

We have commercial, big companies like Maersk, Everygreen — cargo, mostly cargo. We have a lot of those, foreign and domestic, and like I said, commercial, and we do a lot of the tugs also. We got people who sail from here to Florida, and the opposite way.

The first sale I made at New York Nautical was to a designer. In this business we say, ‘Thank God for Martha Stewart.’ Because right before she went to jail she decorated a bathroom with navigational charts.

What's the most popular item you sell?

That varies between charts of New York harbor — because a lot of people hang them on the wall, and a publication called Eldridge, Tide and Pilot. I get 300 of them in and I sell 300 of them. It’s a book; it’s basically tides and currents of most of the areas along the east coast, and everybody that sails, mostly the private guys, they must have that publication. It’s a must-have book.

Is there much competition?

That’s a problem in this business that I’ve come to dislike because competition tends to cut each other’s throat. I know companies that will do an entire order and make one dollar on the entire order, which makes no sense to me, but people do that. But, competition’s always been there, you try to work through it, best as possible. I believe in service over price. Sometimes people call me up and say, ‘I want to get this, but your price is too high,’ and I say, well, ‘I have great service. So if you want, you go to the guy with the cheap price, but if he’s missing anything, come back to me, and remember the price I gave you? It went up.’ And in this business, with me, I have a lot of people who when they call here, they only want to speak to me. If I’m on vacation, they won’t place an order, because I try to get it right the first time. And some people don’t get it right.

How do you spread word about the business?

I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and it’s mostly my reputation that gets me business. We have a new owner, who bought the company about eight years ago. He’s been told by a lot of customers, ‘You let him go, we’re not coming back to you.’ I take care of my customers. They can ask me a question and I usually have the answer for them.

This is a destination store. Someone had to explain that to me what a destination store is. You’re the type of store that doesn’t really need to advertise, people just know about you.

Were you affected by the recession?

Yes, greatly. Everyone feels the effects of this recession. The ships are not carrying as much goods as they used to so therefore with container ships, they don’t sail a half empty container ship, it has to be full. If it’s not full, it won’t move. So you have less ships moving. That’s the biggest slowdown I’ve seen. You’re always going to have your oil tankers — everybody needs fuel — but when it comes down to the merchandise, that business is pretty slow right now.

Do you ever go sailing?

Only on cruise ships. I like to bring my food with me (laughs). It’s the truth. People have asked me to go sailing with them and I have no interest. It’s got to be a real big boat. I’m not into getting sloshed around in the water.

Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Drawers and drawers of nautical charts.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
New York Nautical is decorated with with sailing paraphernalia.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Smitty takes orders on the phone, in person, and over the internet.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
New York Nautical has worldwide coverage of the seas.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
It's imperative for ships to have clocks on board.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
One of the employees at New York Nautical loves the Beatles. When this reporter was in the store, Smitty was listening to Jazz on the radio.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Close up of a nautical chart.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Barometers and clocks for sale at New York Nautical. They only sell analog instruments, because, Smitty says, customers "like that style."
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
New York Nautical sells the essentials for shipping.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Decorators and designers shop at New York Nautical too.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Smitty prepares an order of 219 nautical charts.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Younger sailors are learning how to navigate with sextants, as a backup when electricity goes out.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Navigational charts show sailors the lowest depth of water in any given area.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
James "Smitty" Smith, manager of New York Nautical and an employee of 30 years.

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Comments [13]

caroline from new york

American Nautical just opened at NYC Market, nautical inspired brand with many different products. From jewelry to clothes and decor

Apr. 08 2014 02:27 PM
Daniel Smith from Daniel "Boone" Smith

I,m Proud of my brother Jimmy.He,s very dedicated to work.He,s very knowledgeable. Keep up the good work.

Apr. 30 2011 01:14 PM
David from 139 Thames st. Brooklyn

I'm not sure if this is where I should recommend a future Niche idea, but here goes. I would like to recommend the gorgeous, handmade and affordable salvaged wood furniture designs of KOFF Designs in Brooklyn! They sell mostly through word of mouth and out of the owner's home, but are able to offer much much nicer pieces than IKEA for not that much more money! Using locally reclaimed wood designs and non-toxic stains and sealants they are an artistic way to turn any room Green. :)
www.koff.carbonmade.com

Mar. 30 2011 12:30 PM
David from 139 Thames st. Brooklyn

I'm not sure if this is where I should recommend a future Niche idea, but here goes. I would like to recommend the gorgeous, handmade and affordable salvaged wood furniture designs of KOFF Designs in Brooklyn! They sell mostly through word of mouth and out of the owner's home, but are able to offer much much nicer pieces than IKEA for not that much more money! Using locally reclaimed wood designs and non-toxic stains and sealants they are an artistic way to turn any room Green. :)
www.koff.carbonmade.com

Mar. 30 2011 12:29 PM
William Smith

After reading this article, I have to say that I was glad to see Jimmy (my brother) get his due or recognition for the hard work he puts in to learn his craft. Jimmy like the rest of us were taught by our parents to work hard and people will notice. Keep it the good work Jimmy!

Will "Smitty" Smith

Feb. 22 2011 01:22 PM
Mike

Where was I that day
Oh yeah I was on vacation

This great person in this article ( SMITTY) is royalty in my option he showed us all what we know today about the the nautical Industry

All hail Commander " Smitty "

Feb. 16 2011 07:59 PM
Diana

PS I just noticed the slideshow ... fantastic photos. There should be a way to make it more obvious that there are 22 more photos here to look at!

Feb. 15 2011 11:03 AM
Diana from E. Williamsburg

I have never been, but I love Smitty already! Great article!

Feb. 15 2011 11:01 AM
Jacob Kramer

I've passed New York Nautical dozens of times and wondered how they make their money. Fascinating!

Feb. 10 2011 04:03 AM
Paul J. Bosco from Manhattan

Smitty is an interviewer's dream: a six-word question gets a 150-word response.

I would have liked to hear about some of the store's history. I gather it opened at the startr of the great recession?

Persons intrigued by this story may enjoy some of the "working museums" in & around South Street Seaport.

This is a great start to this new feature. All your future interviewees should read this piece. Smitty has set the bar pretty high!

Are you taking nominations for future pieces?

Feb. 09 2011 11:27 PM
ruth K Ziony

I've walked by this store for YEARS and
always wondered what was going on
inside! Very interesting. And I agree
with Smitty about only going where you
have your food with you!!

Feb. 09 2011 06:24 PM
Isabelle

Great new feature! I look forward to more.

Feb. 09 2011 05:22 PM
Johanna Moffitt

Thanks!

Feb. 09 2011 09:11 AM

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