Anchors Aweigh

The China Sea Marine Trading Co., a beloved seafaring antiques and oddities shop, sets sail to a new port in Maine. Its owners, tall ships in the community, are taking a little piece of Fells Point with them.

June 02, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The China Sea Marine Trading Co. -- that grand emporium of serendipitous seagoing stuff on the Ann Street wharf -- is shipping out. And another slice of the Fells Point mystique slips away into the gathering gloom.

Steve Bunker and Sharon Bondroff have been denizens of Fells Point so long you could imagine they sold Capt. William Fell his first sextant. They're simultaneously early pioneers of the new Fells Point and preservers of the old.

Bunker's a familiar Fells Point character, professionally nautical in his somewhat piratical Vandyke beard and mustachio, longish hair, one earring and with a parrot or two perched on his shoulders. Bondroff is a salutary restraining influence, taking care of business, reminding Bunker to tie up loose ends and get "receipts."

Both wear blue-and-white Brittany sailor shirts as they pack up for their move to Gray, Maine, a town about 10 miles north of Portland, or 50 miles northwest of L.L. Bean. By the time you read this they may be gone. Then again, maybe not. The other day there seemed to be the same jumble of maritime antiques and artifacts as ever when they paused for a farewell party at the Wharf Rat.

About 200 of the usual Fells Point suspects turned up and somebody asked: "So why are you leaving Fells Point?"

"I don't want to die here," Bunker said.

He's only 53 but he's been a community leader for most of his two decades around and about the Point. And he's eulogized a generation of local grandees, including such eminences as Kenny Orye, the Irish Republican progenitor of the Cat's Eye Pub; Harry Reynolds, the rotund proprietor of a bar known only as "Bar"; and Jeff Knapp, the Abe Lincoln look-alike for whom the Olympia Marching Band from New Orleans played Storyville dirges.

"Our funerals mean a lot to us here," Bunker says. "The way you send off a friend says a lot about a community."

He's loved living here. Bondroff does, too. But her roots go pretty deep in old East Baltimore. Bunker arrived with the tide in 1976, or at least with the Tall Ships Bicentennial celebration. He came down from Boston and stayed on as the city's maritime historian. His father was an engineer on a merchant ship and he claims a long maritime heritage. Bunkers have been settled in Maine since the 1600s and Steve Bunker figures the menfolk have been going to sea for 11 generations. He seems to be the first to lay out on the beach so long.

Bunker opened his first shop about 20 years ago at 817 South Broadway, a one-time International Workers of the World ("Wobblies") Hall hard by the Methodist Port Mission on the Square in Fells Point.

"I'm an old `Wobbly' myself," he says. "I have my union book in my pocket. And it's up to date."

Fells Point used to be "a lot wilder," he says. He likes to call some of the newer drinking establishments, which lure partying young folks in from the suburbs, "kiddie bars."

"There are still some of the old standbys: The Cat's Eye. John Steven. Whistling Oyster. Wharf Rat. Those are still fun. People of all ages go there.

"Not on the weekends," he says. "Sharon and I go downtown to the Thai restaurant."

When he first came, he says, Fells Point was "one of those places where you didn't necessarily know where somebody came from or who they were before they got here.

"It was sort of a `second start' place. It was a place where an awful lot of people had pasts. And you didn't ask too many questions. You didn't always know people's real names. We had a lot of Eddie's: We had Irish Eddie. Easy Eddie. Railroad Eddie. Fast Eddie.

"They need to keep [Fells Point] a place where people like me can arrive in town from some other place, with another life, and perhaps some failure in his life, and he can get a second chance, start a business -- and become president of the business association and build a life."

And he is president of the Fells Point Community Organization, a member of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point and a functionary of the businessmen's association. He's president of Friends of President Street Station. He advocated the station's renovation for more than a decade before it came about. He's a Civil War re-enactor, leading a charge at Gettysburg not too long ago in the uniform of the 1st Maine Cavalry.

He has consistently and tenaciously fought for the integrity of Fells Point as "a mixed-use, small-scale historic community" against big developers, big political contributors and indifferent city administrations. A dozen years ago he helped form the Waterfront Coalition of community groups from Little Italy to Canton "to keep the neighborhood from being condominium-ized."

"Every two-bit hustler ... was coming to town with a grand scheme of building a condo-tower on the waterfront," he says. "We gained some notable victories."

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