An appreciation: Merilyn ‘Dixie’ Bacon

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Boaters, especially sailors, have a tendency to save nautical things, discarding little except for empty cans of paint and folded pieces of used sandpaper. Hardware, sails, rigging and rope also accumulate, taking over garages, cellars and attics.

Landlubber widows, faced with the daunting task of disposing of a boating lifetime of hoarded items after a collecting mate has died, could always turn to “Mrs. Bacon” for help. As a widow herself, she understood their predicament because she was up to her eyeballs in maritime stuff. She would pick up the unwanted lot, file paper receipts, and tag, ID and price each item for sale on consignment at Bacon & Associates, her museum-like emporium in Annapolis, Md.

Years later, widows could often be pleasantly surprised from time to time when a consignment check arrived from Merilyn “Dixie” Bacon. A frugal, adopted New Englander by marriage to her late collector-husband, Doug, she was among the last of her kind and a maritime shopkeeper’s era ended June 4 when Mrs. Bacon died at the age of 89.

“We still have mystery stuff here that even I can’t identify,” says Ted Johnson, 81, a part-time employee for about 25 years. A former sailor, he was bitten by the collecting bug years ago. He found a working retreat at Bacon’s, and now his wife is pressuring him to get rid of his hoard.

Bacon’s large warehouse at 116 Legion Ave. in West Annapolis has more than 10,000 used and new sails, which is the major line of business. They range in bulk from pram size to Whitbread mainsails with 100-foot luffs.

I was a frequent visitor, consignee and customer, even when I wasn’t looking for something in particular. Those cursed with the acquisition bug, bringing in a basketful of consignment stuff had to be careful because they could walk out with more items than they came in with.

When Mrs. Bacon (no one called her “Dixie”) was about to conduct her definitive “pop test” on a sail with the owner standing by, I would quietly observe the drill. She would attempt to push a needle through the fabric and if it met no resistance and made a “pop” sound, she would shake her head dejectedly. Sometimes the owner was startled, and even offended, when her decision was rendered about his precious sail: “I’m sorry, but this sail has no resale value.” Case closed.

Some sails have been in storage (now temperature-controlled) for decades, awaiting a new owner. When death was near — for the owner or the sails — she gave them away to the Boy Scouts to use as stage drops or for camping teepees.

I would always ask her how many sails she had, knowing I would always get the same answer: “What size are you looking for? We have a lot of sails here and I’m sure we can meet your demanding needs.”

I began visiting her shop in the early 1970s after the Bacons moved their business from Oxford, Md., to the Eastport section of Annapolis. Before they moved to Legion Avenue, they were jammed tight inside an old firehouse on West Street. Mrs. Bacon’s desk was in the middle of an open, cluttered island of paperwork for all to see.

At the new store, however, she had a private office. But I used to sneak around the back entrance and pretend to photograph her buried among mounds of paperwork that loomed over and around her, underfoot, and tottering on shelves, a bookcase, tables and chairs. She would gently shake her finger at me and smile shyly.

Mrs. Bacon had no little associates and left the business to her knowledgeable nephew, Steve Reeves, an Annapolis racer who has been second-in-command for years.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.