Store owner weighs anchor


Viking Boat Supplies closing after 38 years

July 02, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY

The shelves were nearly bare last week at Viking Boat Supplies as owner Peter DeSilva made the final preparations to shut down the Annapolis marine store he opened 38 years ago.

The business officially was set to close its hatch yesterday, and for the past four months DeSilva has been promoting the heck out of final bits of inventory. Last week brightly colored signs announcing "Prizes," "Sale" and "Going out of business" covered the windows.

"It gets kind of chaotic when you get down to the end of everything," DeSilva said as he picked his way though boxes piled in the aisles.

In its heyday, the store was chock-full of those specialized and hard-to-find fittings that boat owners need to make their vessel operable - things such as pulleys, wires, gaskets, bearings, engine parts.

"It was like an old-style hardware store," DeSilva said in an interview last week - already referring to the store in past tense.

Why close the store now?

"I'm 74 years old," DeSilva said, "and you don't want to end up doing this in a wheelchair."

DeSilva hardly seems like he's headed toward frailty. He's trim, has a full head of silver hair and his brown eyes sparkled as he chewed on a cigar and chatted with a reporter.

He said he bought the land for the establishment in 1968, purchasing one-third of an acre with a commanding view of the Spa River for a mere $110,000. And, almost as an afterthought, he bought an adjacent parcel for $4,500.

"The real estate values have gone up," DeSilva said. "It's become a very valuable piece of property."

DeSilva figures he can make as much money leasing the building where the empty store now stands as he could continuing to sell boat parts. The real estate firm Long & Foster will occupy the space.

DeSilva plans to add 12 apartment units to the seven that he already rents on one piece of his land, so he's not heading for full retirement.

Sitting in his office above the shop, still chewing on that cigar, DeSilva explained that he got the idea to open a boat supply store while he was working in Washington in the 1960s. "If you came down on a Saturday, you had to take a number and stand in line at Fawcetts" boat supply store, he said.

Ultimately, DeSilva said, he didn't compete with Fawcett Boat Supply. That store became known for marine clothing and general equipment while he specialized in eccentric hardware. Some of his items would gather dust for years before a customer would come in the shop looking for it, he said.

The store also shied away from sonar, GPS and radar - much of that business went to West Marine or other chain stores. "Electronics - we stayed the hell out of that. It's not our bag," he said. The high-tech merchandise would change too quickly and become stale on the shelf, he said.

Viking got its name from a hotel bar in Newport, R.I., that other East Coast sailing capital. DeSilva spent a few years in the Navy, and he had fond memories of enjoying drinks at the Viking Hotel bar after the ship was squared away.

DeSilva was born in Kansas City, Kan., and learned to sail at age 6 while at camp in Cape Cod, Mass. Campers were required to prove they could stay afloat for 15 minutes in order to use a canoe - and 30 minutes in order go out in a sailboat. DeSilva saw the 30-minute rule as a challenge and made it a goal to take out the sailboat.

He graduated from Harvard University, then got a degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. After his time in the Navy, DeSilva opened a liquor store in Washington, but quickly became bored with it. He took some time off and found himself drawn to Annapolis.

Although DeSilva knew nothing about operating a boat supply store, he rapidly learned to be attentive to customers and pay close attention not only to their marine problems but also to how people interpreted the solutions that he offered.

He recalled one customer who needed to add ballast to a boat and wanted advice on how to best secure hunks of lead to the craft's interior. DeSilva suggested using epoxy, a commonly used marine adhesive that comes in two parts - A and B - and needs to be mixed in order to harden.

The customer walked away with two gallons but came in the next week to complain that the stuff had never set. It turns out the customer had bought two gallons of part A and zero gallons of the B, meaning the boat was filled with slimy goo.

"Can you imagine what a mess that was?" DeSilva said, chuckling at the memory. "Most of the time you catch those things."

"If you really try to take care of the customers, it is really time-consuming," DeSilva said. He would spend six days a week in the store.

DeSilva, who lives in Annapolis, doesn't have any immediate plans for what to do with the spare time. It's likely though, that it will involve more time messing around with his own two boats.

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