Last of the ship's chandlers

Stoney Jr.

There was a time when seafaring captains could walk the Charleston waterfront buying supplies from a variety of ship's chandlers.

That was when tall-masted ships lay at anchor in the harbor and the port city's pulse depended on their comings and goings.

Today the ships are more mundane and massive, serving mostly as a backdrop for tourists visiting historic sights or enjoying the beaches.

But there is one chandler left, up on Morrison Drive, the working man's end of East Bay Street, where you still can buy rubber boots, pipe wrap tape, rain suits, safety glasses, paint chipping brushes and enough heavy line to lash your ship to the dock.

"Ships are like little towns," said Laurence Stoney Jr., owner of Coleman Marine Supply, the last chandler operating on the waterfront. "We supply everything they need, not just what they want.

"It's an interesting business, logistically. We're always dealing with moving targets."

Need it now

Established in 1887, Coleman's had a few owners in its long history before Stoney bought the business in 1993.

But it's changed since the days when captains came to town with a shopping list and paid cash on the barrel head for supplies. Today's business is done by e-mail with management companies in faraway places.

"I used to go on every single ship," Stoney said. "But the days of me going down to meet the ships with a price list are long gone."

Now the orders arrive via the Internet, which is less romantic, but speeds up the process. And whether the need is a ton of toilet paper or special spices for Oriental crew members, they want it now.

"That's the nature of our business," said Stoney, 58, as he walked through a warehouse crammed with fruit juice, gloves, hooks and heavy-duty clamps. "They don't need this stuff on Monday, because the ship is going to be gone by Friday. They need it now."

Which calls for a pretty agile purchasing power and a staff of 10 well-trained people who can find the right articles and get them out to the ships before they sail.

"We find them everything from welders to divers, whatever they need," Stoney said. "We supply soup to nuts, and bolts."

Romance language

Luden's, a more visible former chandler turned outdoor outfitter, has announced it will close later this month, leaving Coleman Marine as the last one standing.

"This business still exists because of the difficulty of getting things on the ship," Stoney said. "That's what we do best."

By truck or by boat, Stoney and his staff deliver in high seas and the dark of night. It's all about the logistics. Even if the business isn't as romantic as it used to be.

"There's nothing much romantic about ships any more," Stoney said. "They're just steel, wire rope, grease and paint."

But the old English name remains.

And, while you can still get a signal flare, deck paint or any variety of light bulbs from your friendly chandler, there is a limit to what Stoney and his staff will provide visiting sailors.

"Occasionally we get requests for prostitutes," he said. "But we choose not to participate in that kind of business."