The store, with its 119-year history in Seattle, caters to both intrepid and armchair navigators with navigational tools from old school to high tech.
Unless you either work or play on boats, you can be forgiven for never having heard of Captain’s Nautical Supplies. For more than a century, the Seattle-based retailer of sea charts, marine instruments and telescopes has catered to both intrepid and armchair navigators.
Think compasses, sextants, telescopes, brass oil lamps, barometers, binoculars and the kind of old salts who get a kick out of using 18th-century technology.
The store first opened its doors 119 years ago to serve the needs of ship captains during the Alaska Gold Rush and thrives in an age of instant GPS navigation, night-vision cameras and smartphone weather apps.
Captain’s Nautical Supplies
Founded: Max Kuner in 1897
Current location: 1120 N.W. Ballard Way
Indeed, other beloved stalwarts of Seattle’s maritime-retail scene, such as Doc Freeman’s, are fading, tar-stained memories.
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But new owner Jim Wheat believes there’s a market for authenticity.
Wheat, a longtime retailer who founded Paper Zone, plans to follow in the wake of other iconic Seattle-based businesses such as outdoor clothier Filson that have thrived not by ditching their old-school ways, but by embracing them.
“You just can’t find businesses with such an authentic ambience to build upon and make really special,” he said. “That’s what appealed to me.”
Wheat just relocated the store from Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood to Ballard. He thinks the historic nature of Captain’s will be the key to a new chapter for the company, along with an expanded offering of products that appeal to customers beyond recreational boaters and commercial mariners.
Boating is big business in Washington, which has one of the highest rates of boat ownership in the country. Recreational boating alone generates an estimated $4 billion a year in economic activity and helps support 28,000 jobs, according to a 2011 study by Hebert Research.
Wheat sees the expertise of Captain’s in navigation and boating as a natural foundation to expand its appeal to other outdoor adventurers. He plans to add products targeted specifically for women. He’d also like to make Captain’s a home for birders, hikers and anyone whose hobbies or work involve exploring.
“There is no difference between a traveler who is going to travel somewhere and a boater who is going to travel somewhere,” Wheat said. “I want to push us into that travel space.”
Captain’s was well-known to Wheat, a longtime local boater and small-plane pilot, when he learned it was for sale last year. He and partner investment banker Bill Hanneman bought it in 2014 for an undisclosed amount from Emery Shrock, who purchased the company in 1948.
Wheat has a track record of building up specialty-retail businesses. He started his career in merchandising at Eddie Bauer in the early 1970s when it was a single store specializing in fly-fishing. He left in the 1980s to help start Westminster Lace, a Seattle-based seller of upscale bedding and linens. In the 1990s, he took over a small chain of paper outlets and transformed them into the Paper Zone before selling it to a private-equity firm.
Captain’s new location creates another opportunity for the business, which was originally named the Max Kuner Co. in 1897 — recreating a sense of its own history.
The retail store has occupied a series of locations through its history, including Pioneer Square. Its most recent site on 15th Avenue West was a cramped, nondescript building. Wheat wanted a building that had a sense of history suitable for Captain’s new home.
He found it in a 1903 building at 1120 N.W. Ballard Way. Across the street from Maritime Pacific Brewing, the 7,000-square-foot leased warehouse has been home to marine trades through the years. Although the new store isn’t much larger than the previous location, it has a great deal more usable space open to the public.
Wheat thinks Captain’s has long missed an opportunity to showcase the skills of its staff members because much of that was done in the backroom or onboard boats. At the new Ballard location, repairs and other work will be done in full view of customers.
“To succeed in the marketplace, you need for the customer experience to be more than just walking in and picking something up off the shelf,” he said. “Captain’s is the perfect showcase — it’s been hidden and under the radar the whole time for the customer. Watching the charts being printed or the guy correcting them; watching someone fix a clock — all this stuff is going on, but no one ever gets to witness it.”
Captain’s employs 10 experts who are called upon to adjust compasses on everything from giant cargo ships to small yachts. Employees can repair antique marine instruments and are well-known for selling and supporting high-end optics, such as binoculars and telescopes.
And Captain’s is one of the few businesses in North America that is authorized to sell and correct charts produced by the British Admiralty — considered among the best in the world.
Wheat and crew have tried to make the new location feel like Captain’s has always called it home. He hired a local painter in Ballard to create exterior signage that looks old, including the faded letters MKC, an homage to the company’s original name.
Inside are antique-display cases and oversized butcher-block tables Wheat built that will enable large nautical charts to be spread out for dreams of destinations near and far.
This new direction for the store has caused a little discomfort with some longtime customers worried that Captain’s might change too much, Wheat admits.
“We have all the commercial-maritime people, the tugboat people, the ‘Deadliest Catch’ people, all of the salty, Ballard fishing community,” he said, before pausing. “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘Jim, don’t (mess) this up.’ ”