Back in 1990, I was wandering around life aimlessly, tending bar and waiting tables with no motivation to go to college and barely enough funds to cover the rent. In 1990, I got fired for carelessly missing a shift. Then I got evicted from my apartment.
I spent most days living at a friend’s house looking through the local newspaper and trying to line up interviews. One Sunday, I found an ad that read, “Fawcett Boat Supplies is looking for experienced retail people with boating experience for our Downtown Annapolis store. Please apply inside.”
I’d never heard of the place, but most of my newly found sailing friends had. So, I filled out an application. Somehow, despite my limited retail, sailing and overall boating knowledge, I talked store manager Bill Griffin into hiring me. It was one of the best things to ever happen to me.
Arthur and Mary Fawcett opened the doors to Fawcett Boat Supplies in 1948 at 428 Fourth St. in the Eastport section of Annapolis, after Annapolis boatyard owner Arnie Gay egged them on to build a boat supply outfit instead of a bookstore. He helped the Fawcetts order the right inventory, and then placed what would be the first of many orders.
The chandlery was immediately popular with boat and boatyard owners alike and moved to a larger space at 100 Compromise St. in Downtown Annapolis a year later. The store would thrive there until 1969, when owners Dick Hutchins, Bill Simmons and Coleman DuPont bought the Acme grocery store next door, renovated it, and moved Fawcett’s inside. The location gave the store a prime location with a couple hundred feet of waterfront docks and a larger building.
My first day at the store was in February 1990. For three months, I shadowed store veteran Ed Morris, who knew every inch like he owned it. I wasn’t allowed to pick up the phone, wait on customers or do much of anything unsupervised. “We want you to be ready and equipped to provide Fawcett-level service to our customers,” Morris said.
While most folks might have been annoyed with the lengthy training program, I reveled in it. I learned about vented loops and joker valves, fids and sailmaker palms, nylon versus Dacron, beckets and roller bearings, hose clamps and through-hulls, charts and Coast Pilot books. “Do your best to learn the names of regular customers, and call them by their first name,” Morris said. “And don’t judge a book by its cover. See that rough-looking guy over there? He owns a 110-foot Abeking & Rasmussen. He’s also one of the nicest customers we have.”
I was also taught to constantly move about the store, making sure everyone had been asked if they needed help. One of my favorite customer service lessons from training was when Morris told me, “If you leave someone after helping them, always say, ‘Make yourself at home,’ so they know to be comfortable browsing around the store.”
The neatly organized, packed-to-the-gills store was often staffed by as many as 10 clerks, all of whom were experts in a hardware area. More than half the staff were full-time liveaboards (me included), many were competitive sailboat racers, and most of the rest were boat owners. The breadth of knowledge and depth of inventory were, quite frankly, simply
I often tell the story of how a person could walk in off the street with a flapper valve from a 20-year-old Wilcox-Crittenden 1560 marine head, and the staffer who helped him would not only identify it by sight, but also know how to install it. If on the rare occasion we didn’t have a specific part, we were almost always able to order it or recommend another store we knew stocked it. We’d even call on behalf of our customers and have the shops hold the parts aside for them, even if the store was a competitor. That kind of customer service seems almost unimaginable today.
The store often attracted celebrities. I remember when America’s Cup skipper Dennis Connor visited, as well as the many visits by Walter Cronkite. Rockstar sailors from around the world often converged on the store, including BOC and Vendee Globe skippers. Most memorable was when I helped author William Warner, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Beautiful Swimmers. The story had gotten my dad and me into crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay back in the mid-’70s.
In the back of the store, in a separate office, a team of wholesale representatives fielded nonstop phone calls from boatyards, marinas, boatbuilders, tall ship captains and ship’s pilots from around the world. Overnight orders were shipped out of the warehouse and installed on boats the next morning, whether the product was tarred hemp, caulking cotton, an obscure lightbulb or a piece of custom rigging or splicing handcrafted in the store’s rigging shop. Vans were dispatched each morning to deliver orders to brokerages, boatyards and marinas up and down the length of Chesapeake Bay.
I eventually worked my way through the ranks and became the store’s rigger, and then moved into wholesale sales, a job I enjoyed immensely. I spent most of my time helping yards and builders find the parts they needed, laughing almost constantly and learning something new most every day. I left Fawcett in 2001 to figure out life’s next steps, and in 2003, one of my wholesale clients hired me as an editor at Waterway Guide, where I’d work for seven years. Without Fawcett’s, I may have never become a writer, much less one in the boating field. Having worked at Fawcett’s opened doors.
Fawcett Boat Supplies today is centrally located between the marina and boatyard areas lining Edgewood Road and along the waterfront in the Eastport section of Annapolis. Griffin, who originally hired me, is still buzzing around the store making sure customers are well taken care of, and you can still get friendly expert service amid a vast inventory of specialty boating and marine items.
Seventy years later, the Fawcett formula still works.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.