Neighborhood Joint: The Little Shop of Charting Global Waters

Neighborhood Joint: The Little Shop of Charting Global Waters

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Michael Jackson played over the radio station. It was humid, and a fan was blowing. Magnetic compasses the size of softballs trembled periodically as trains rumbled underground. Wooden cabinets with rows of long skinny drawers sat staggered in the room. Globes here, barometers there. Two men worked at desks piled with papers.

A map of New York Harbor being printed. Most of the shop’s business comes from commercial ships needing charts required by the Coast Guard.

Credit
John Taggart for The New York Times

Shelves exhibited titles such as “The Law of Tug and Tow” and “Heavy Weather Tactics,” as well as a $220 brass yacht lamp and $645 night-vision binoculars.

Mr. Brennan first visited New York Nautical, when it was located at 40 Water Street, in 1963, when he was a 10-year-old naval history buff. The shop relocated twice more before docking at 200 Church Street in 2014, but it already needs a new address. “Rent is a problem,” said James Smith, known as Smitty, who has run the shop for 37 years.

A young couple from Milwaukee stood toward the back of the store.

“We’re rebuilding a 1961 sailboat to sail around the world,” said Yuliya Sorin, 26, browsing with Ari Wolf, 27, her husband of 10 months. (Their current work — he runs a leatherwork company, she does landscape design — keeps them far from the open seas.)

Ms. Sorin calculated that it would take about a decade to restore the boat, meaning the couple would set sail around 2026. “We’ll hang in the Caribbean for a while, maybe a couple of years, island hopping, then head to New Zealand and Australia.”

Mr. Smith said most of New York Nautical’s business came from commercial ships — tugboats, oil tankers and container ships — needing charts required by the Coast Guard. During busy times, the business will mail 40 charts a day around the world.

But often, the shop is quiet.

“Years ago, you could walk in around noon and we’d be full,” he said. “But this is the age of the internet.”

Models of racing yachts and clocks on display.

Credit
John Taggart for The New York Times

Mr. Smith took a summer job at New York Nautical in 1980 with no relevant experience. He had been managing stock at a grocery store. But something clicked — as if overnight, Mr. Smith said, he had memorized hundreds of chart numbers.

Arthur Koenig, 73, walked in. He picked up “The Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book 2017,” a must-have for boaters around Long Island Sound.

“I have a boat that I keep in Maine,” said Mr. Koenig, a retired commodities trader living in London and Manhattan. His wife, however, prefers boating around Shelter Island, so he recently moved it there, he said, “in the interest of harmony.”

Ms. Sorin and Mr. Wolf, the newlywed sailors, made a mental list of tidal charts of different seas, as well as lanterns, they would come back for.

“You can’t find these things,” she said, flipping through chart books. “We’ll search on eBay for hours to find stuff like this. It’s just nuts.”

Ms. Sorin acknowledged that most nautical charts now have digital versions. “But if the electronic system goes down, and you’re in the middle of the ocean,” she said, “you need charts and a sextant. Or you’re in trouble.”

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