Swashbuckling South Street Seaport merchant Joe Hill dies at 76

Swashbuckling South Street Seaport merchant Joe Hill dies at 76

Joe Hill, a dealer in marine junk and gems who was famous for the South Street Seaport for decades, died October 17 in Huntington, New York, Long Island. He was 76 years old.

His family said that his death, in a hospice facility, was caused by complications of dementia.

Until he had to leave the store in 2000 due to rising rents, Mr. Hill’s South Street was one of the last links to the neighborhood’s maritime past, standing against the tide of high-end retail outlets that were flooding this salty corner of Manhattan. Were changing. In an increasingly homogenized commercial landscape and tourist mecca.

Of course, it was all an act – his pirate hat faked by the parrot on his shoulder, the patch over his eye and the “aarhs” and “mateys” with which he greeted customers in a maritime junkyard of a shop, Capt. Of hook.

But his eccentricity was genuine, as was his devotion to the seafaring treasures he collected – pilot’s wheels, oddly shaped corals, diving helmets, dried barracudas, shell coasters, driftwood – all of which connected him to a place in history. rich in and whose dull, commercial present he strongly rejected.

“Quite a wonderful character,” Peter Neal, former director of the South Street Seaport Museum, said in an interview. “One of the many old port characters, now all gone.”

“The Seaport is losing its character — me,” Mr. Hill told The New York Times modestly in 1998, when, finally, tenfold increases in rents began to force him out. “It’s a shame,” he said then. “People come here for the port and what do they get? A shopping mall, like the one at their home.”

Feeling out of place in the environment taken over by Ann Taylor & Coach, it was one of the older tenants, following on the heels of vintage restaurants like Sweets, established in 1842 and just down the street.

Before that he reigned supreme over his disorganized shop in the middle Schermerhorn RowThe block of early 19th-century brick houses on Fulton Street is now a landmark. “Mr. Hill’s was a great beachside junk shop-souvenir shop that occasionally had the aspiration of an antiques store,” Mr. Neal said. Sometimes the queues of people waiting to go inside stretch to the corner.

Mr. Hill opened Captain Hook in 1976 to coincide with the Revolution’s bicentennial and continued setting up shop until the turn of the century, “when there was nothing there,” recalls his wife, Trudy Hill. He involved himself in the dreams of urban renewal that swept Lower Manhattan in the late 1960s and 70s, confident that he would make a lot of money from his storefront in a location that was becoming a major tourist attraction. .

A natural salesman, he sent customers $2 postcards with cool merchandise, and was also adamant about collecting tips. He worked like a giant and did well enough to buy a house in affluent Sands Point on the north shore of Long Island for a while, though he was “out of place” there, said his son Matthew, who grew up among wealthy corporate founders. Was surrounded by.

His other son, Jason, said: “How crazy was it that someone who was flipping stuff was able to get to Sands Point? A guy who went to a garage sale?”

At one time Mr. Hill charged only 25 cents for the privilege of viewing his vast collection of nautical trinkets. Some of them, such as sextants and $500 spy glasses and $2,000 ship models, were quite valuable. But most customers are left a little poorer, having been constantly talked about by Mr. Hill, part hunter and part honest enthusiast — a “good businessman,” Mr. Neal said.

Mr. Hill spent weekends in New England in the 1980s scouring farmhouse barns and scouring flea markets to fill the store. His wife said, “He would go to places where no one would go.”

He embodied the immortal Captain Hook character in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and several film adaptations. To the delight of schoolchildren and the amusement of customers around the world, he would pose with a knife in his teeth and a whale’s tusk around his neck. In the early days of his store, he would introduce his father, a World War II veteran, as Poppa Hooks and his mother as Momma Hooks.

“He will forever be Captain Hook,” Ms. Hill said. “Good friends will call and say, ‘Where’s the hook?'”

Going to the store as a child was like going on a “treasure hunt,” Matthew Hill said. There was no bottom to the layers of junk. His father’s hard work was only a part of it. “Embarrassing? It was like, ‘Oh my God, Dad, don’t do that.'”

But Matthews said, “He doesn’t care what people think – he cares about making people happy.” And the customers went along with it. “Welcome aboard!” Mr. Hill would yell.

Mr. Hill told a Newsday reporter in 1983, “Everyone wants to be a pirate and a kid and have something to remind them of all that.”

When the store closed, “he was sad for a long time,” Ms. Hill said.

“They turned it into a shopping mall and he was very upset about it,” he said. “His shop was different. It was much more than the income.”

Offers were made to reopen the store elsewhere, but Mr. Hill was a New York pirate and did not want to move. Before the venue closed, there were years of tension and a five-year court battle over rent increases with its landlord, the Rouse Corporation, which ran the commercial portion of the port.

“They didn’t like him because he wasn’t attractive,” Ms Hill said. “They always wanted to take him out. “They only wanted high-end stores.”

Joseph Stanley Hill was born on November 9, 1946, and grew up in Middle Village, Queens, where he attended public schools, including Aviation High School. His father, Jack, was a dry goods salesman, and his mother, Pearl, worked at a toy company in Queens.

His father and maternal grandfather were weekend fishermen who went for cod off Montauk Point on the East End of Long Island, and in his later years Mr. Hill always had a boat. He graduated from the New York Institute of Technology in 1968, served in the Green Beret Reserve and became an engineer, eventually working on projects for two large East Coast construction companies.

However his heart was somewhere else. His first purchase of a nautical item was an old ship’s wheel, and he never looked back. He had saved enough from construction work to open a small marine goods store in Port Washington on Long Island. The store opened on Schermerhorn Row soon thereafter, which had to be renovated from top to bottom, his wife recalled.

“Look, what I did was turn a hobby into a business,” he told a reporter in 1983.

In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Hill is survived by a daughter, Michelle.

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