It’s a busy weekday at The Shell Shop on the Morro Bay waterfront. Visitors quietly peruse bin after bin of gleaming, colorful specimens, long strands of tiny cowries, tubs of scallops and conches, and a table of gleaming abalone.
Some patrons make shell necklaces or compile collections; others hover in front of a glass case full of beautifully polished, perfect shells.
“We have people coming back who are third generation visitors,” said owner David Thomas. “People say, oh, we came her 40 years ago. We get a lot of repeat business.” After 50 years in business, Thomas said the shop is still going strong. He declined to disclose annual sales, but he said the business is successful because of its quality product, reasonable prices and loyal employees. Five of the store’s seven employees have worked there for more than 20 years.
The business had humble roots on the sandy Morro Bay waterfront, starting out as a lemonade-like stand in 1955. David Thomas’s father, Lawrence Thomas, moved his family to Morro Bay in 1947 after years in Alaska and Oregon. He worked as a commercial fisherman, continuing to do so even after he started to sell shells to visitors and passers-by.
“I’d always been interested in shells,” said Lawrence, 94. “Even when I was little kid and we lived near the beach, I was always picking up the broken shells.”
Soon, the small, flimsy structure became a larger vegetable stand. In the early 1960’s, the family built the building on the Embarcadero, where the business still resides. Now, the Thomas’ import shells from 26 countries, including Mozambique, Taiwan, and the Philippines. David Thomas said the family has been able to travel extensively over the world to look for new shells.
“For years, it was just the three of us,” Thomas said – himself, his father and his late mother, Louise. David took over most of operations in the 1980’s. “We had no idea it would grow like this or what we were getting into,” he said.
For now, Thomas isn’t planning to change a good thing. In summer, the shop’s clientele is mostly tourists looking for shell souvenirs, through ironically none of them come from waters near Morro Bay. The largest shell in the store is the 10-pound Golden Trumpet shell from Australia. “Most of the pretty shells are from warmer waters,” David said.
The rest of the year, the main business is from decorators, crafters and collectors, eyeing specimens like the Imperial Slit Shell from Taiwan, priced at a mere $1,850. “What I enjoy is developing new contacts overseas,” David said. “My parents have been all over the world.” The Shell Shop is only daily at 590 Embarcadero.
Christians, Lindsay “Morro bay:50 Years of Selling Sea Shells by the Seashore – Shop Sounds of the Sea.” San Luis Obispo The Tribune6 Aug. 2005: Print.