Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 20, 2015 and The Weekly Packet, August 20, 2015
Susan Oliver and Jenni Steele—
Island Fishing Gear & NAPA Auto Parts
by Jessica Brophy
Asking around for brake pads or buoy paint in Stonington will invariably prompt the directive: “Go see the girls.”
“The girls” are Susan Oliver and Jenni Steele, who have co-owned Island Fishing Gear & NAPA Auto Parts for 27 years.
“Isn’t it nice that I’m still a girl?” asked Oliver with a laugh.
Hardly anyone calls the store by its name, says Oliver. The business is prominently located at the entrance to the town fish pier in the top-landing lobster port in the state.
In 1988—October 17, 1988, Steele says; Oliver wasn’t quite sure but it sounded “about right”—the pair set up shop on Bayview Street, at the current location of Little Bay Lobster. Oliver and Steele had picked crabmeat and shrimp together, and were keenly aware of how much money was spent on gear, particularly for gillnetting, a major method of fishing at the time.
The business built up quickly, and in the mid-1990s they heard Carly Webb was selling the building that currently houses Island Fishing Gear. “We approached him, and he wanted us to take over the auto parts business,” said Oliver. “We were scared to death. It was a huge undertaking.”
The business moved in January 1995. Eventually, NAPA picked up the store and now handles the parts and supplies.
In the late 1990s, when the town was in disarray as the sewer system was updated, Oliver recalls an older deliveryman from Rhode Island. “As he came in, so did this great big wharf rat, and he jumped straight up onto the countertop,” said Oliver with a laugh. “We scooted the rat toward the side door and left ourselves….We never did find that rat.”
Oliver has witnessed major shifts in commercial fisheries over the years. “At first, a big portion of what we were buying and selling early on was geared toward gillnetting and scalloping,” she said. “Little by little it’s gone to almost all lobstering—it’s nice that this year there was some scalloping.”
The trends in the industry, particularly the emphasis on lobstering as a single-species fishery, worry Oliver. “We’ve had a couple of great years [of lobstering], and I have to wonder when this is gonna stop, and what is going to happen when we’re caught with our pants down.
“There’s big money being made right now. Our grandparents and great-grandparents wouldn’t believe what we’re making,” she continued. The money is great for the industry—and for businesses like hers—but she is concerned about the future. When she was young, many people would fish for a few years, then learn another trade or go to school, and maybe come back to fishing.
“There’s more and more people going from high school to fishing,” said Oliver. Her own daughter, Hollan, fished in high school. “One of my biggest fears was that she would like it enough to make it her career,” said Oliver, whose husband Brent is also a fisherman.
“There’s so much rules and regulations to keep up with, and it’s hard,” said Oliver. She says she worries about young fishermen.
It’s hard on those who fish, and on those who stay ashore, she continued. When her husband was gillnetting, he would work from midnight until 3 or 4 p.m. the next day, and once he did so 80 days in a row. “Judy [Williams] and I felt like widows, we felt like we had only each other. We did the trash, the lawns, we did everything. But we were young and we were hungry—it was a good way to make a living.”
When her husband participated in long-lining, he would be gone for three days at a time catching cod, halibut and other groundfish. “If anything happened, it always seemed like he was off,” said Oliver. “I remember when we heard about the Perfect Storm rolling in, Brent was out. I radioed him: ‘Do you know what’s coming in?’ and he said he was watching the weather and on his way in, and that my grandfather had taught him well.”
Oliver never expected to marry a fisherman. In fact, she distinctly remembers telling Carol Bridges that she never would. When she and Brent were dating, his plans were to become an architect. “Then one day he looked at me and said, ‘I love fishing.’ And here I am 34 years later and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Both Oliver and Steele say the best part of their business is the customers, many of whom they’ve known for years. “We’ve been here a long time, for the good and the bad,” said Oliver. “From children being born to fishermen passing.”
Steele and Oliver were founding members of the Island Fishermen’s Wives Association, a nonprofit created to help support families who lost fishermen, and to promote safety and education in the fishing community. People often think Island Fishing Gear is the headquarters of IFWA, but it’s not so, said Oliver.
The business is more than a place to buy gear. Steele calls it a “community hub:
“We’re the go-to people in some respects. People ask us how to get a hold of so-and-so, and with our VHF, we get a lot of: ‘Can you call my wife, can you make a dentist appointment, can you call my husband and tell him I’m in labor?’” said Steele.