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From Scraps to Souvenirs

Treasure hunting at Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor
Written by Heather Brand. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

nauticalantiquesGalveston’s Ships Mechanic Row got its name back in the 19th Century when it was an artery of the island’s shipping industry, located just a few blocks from the wharf. The street—also referred to as Mechanic Avenue—bustled with seaport trade back then, and the busy atmosphere persists today with tourists trawling historic downtown Galveston’s shops, museums, and restaurants.

Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor, located at 2202 Mechanic Ave. in Galveston, opens Mon and Thu-Sat 10-6, and Sun 11-4. Call 409/539-5469.

Amid the hubbub is a not-so-hidden treasure trove, Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor, located on the first floor of the landmark J. Reymershoffer’s Sons commission house building. The enterprising Czech immigrant John Reymershoffer built the structure in 1876 for a glass and porcelain import business. Although the building originally had three stories, Hurricane Carla destroyed the top floor in 1961 and only the bottom two floors were salvaged.

As it turns out, Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor also stocks glass and porcelain, in the form of glass fishing net floats and ships’ crockery, along with countless other items. Shipping paraphernalia festoons practically every inch of the 4,200-square-foot store. The walls are decked with vintage gear like bright orange life rings, brass bells, old rigging, pulley blocks and deadeyes, and red and green lanterns, used for indicating port and starboard, respectively.

Michael and Adrienne Culpepper, partners in marriage and merchandising, have owned and operated the shop since 2000, sometimes accompanied by their good-natured chocolate lab, Popeye. They first opened the shop in a building farther east, at the corner of 23rd and Winnie streets, but they relocated to higher ground after Hurricane Ike destroyed their inventory in 2008. The move to their present location turned out to be a boon, as it placed them in the midst of the island’s prime shopping and tourism area.

To restock their inventory, the Culpeppers close the shop once a year to travel as far afield as India, Bangladesh, Turkey, and China to visit shipbreaking yards, where vessels are taken apart to be discarded or sold for scrap. Adrienne and Michael scour the yards for choice items to bring back to Galveston. As 20th-Century ships are retired, their equipment becomes less common, so the Culpeppers acquire as much as possible on each excursion, packing shipping containers with vintage objects that get harder to find every year. They store the surplus of antiques—from ships’ wheels to hand-knotted rope bumpers, teak hatch covers, foghorns, and portholes—in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse separate from the shop.

Nautical Antiques’ best-selling items are the glass floats that fishermen once used to buoy their nets and long lines. These beautiful green and blue orbs, ranging from baseball- to basketball size, are wrapped in a mesh of knotted rope, and they grace nearly every surface of the store. Floats hang from the ceiling, cluster in the corners, and pack overhead storage nooks. Anglers used the glass floats from the 1800s into the 1960s, when plastic floats replaced them. So even though Nautical Antiques has plenty of the glass bulbs in stock, Adrienne notes, there is ultimately a limited supply. Part of their appeal is the affordable price—$40 for the large floats and $12 for smaller floats.

In addition to salvaged items, the Culpeppers also carry a few artisan-made goods, such as brightly painted fish made from recycled oil drums in Haiti and artful sea creatures pieced together from driftwood. The hand-carved sculptures from Indonesia inevitably draw attention: The colorful wooden float-lines are both eye-catching and inexpensive at $25. The mermaid figureheads are also hard to resist.

Nautical Antiques’ other popular items include decommissioned flags—hand-dyed flags, 100 percent wool flags, and others weathered from use. Several racks near the back of the store display the particolored flags of such faraway places as Belgium, Brazil, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. Nearby, high shelves hold late 20th-Century navigational charts from around the world (priced at a mere $10 each).

During my recent visit, the priciest item in the store was a 450-pound brass 1940s engineer order telegraph (commonly called an EOT) at $6,000. Ship pilots used the device to communicate orders to engineers in the engine room to accelerate or slow the vessel. And the oldest item available was a petite, 18th-Century bronze signal cannon the length of a forearm. Ships used the miniature cannons to send warnings or salutes, rather than as weapons.

“Some people care about and appreciate the backstory of a piece that has traversed the globe and then somehow found its way to our small island and into their hands,” Adrienne says. “It’s nice when people stop to actually think and consider how something came to be here—that it had a life of some kind, that it survived so many journeys.”

A few of the shop’s items continued their journeys to my home: I picked up a strand of rope strung with pieces of bone-white driftwood to hang from my kitchen ceiling and a yellow-and-black striped lifeboat oar as a wall ornament.

Among Adrienne’s personal favorites are the navigational instruments, such as compasses and binnacles (the stand that houses the compass), which have been supplanted by GPS navigation. She’s also fond of the dishes, cups, and saucers dating from the 1930s through the 1980s bearing the insignias of various shipping lines, such as Maersk-Sealand and Mediterranean Shipping Company. “Ships don’t spend their money making it anymore,” she says. “You just can’t find it. Now they use unbreakable plastic.”

Of course, Nautical Antiques has several sets of this hard-to-come-by crockery in a display case near the register, confirming that this is indeed the place to discover any number of obsolete and unusual pieces not to be found anywhere else on the island, or even in Texas. It’s a bonanza of nautical wares, overflowing with rare gifts, beach-house decor, or anything else that floats your boat.

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