Joe Hill, swashbuckling South Street Seaport merchant, dies at 76

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Joe Hill, swashbuckling South Street Seaport merchant, dies at 76
Inside Joe Hill’s Captain Hook’s store in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport neighborhood, Nov. 27, 1979. Hill, a swashbuckling purveyor from his cluttered Captain Hook’s, a shop filled with nautical bric-a-brac that was a last link to Lower Manhattan’s seafaring history, died on Oct. 17, 2023, in Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 76. (D. Gorton/The New York Times)

by Adam Nossiter

NEW YORK, NY.- Joe Hill, a purveyor of maritime junk and jewels and a swashbuckling fixture in lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport for decades, died on Oct. 17 in Huntington, New York, on Long Island. He was 76.

His family said his death, at a hospice facility, resulted from complications of dementia.

Until he had to abandon the store in 2000 because of rent increases, Hill was one of the last links to the South Street neighborhood’s seafaring past, holding out against a tide of high-end retail outlets that were transforming a salty corner of Manhattan into an increasingly homogenized commercial landscape and tourist mecca.

It was all an act, of course — his pirate’s hat was as fake as the parrot on his shoulder, the patch over his eye and the “aarhs” and “mateys” with which he greeted customers at his nautical junkyard of a store, Captain Hook’s.

But his eccentricity was genuine, as was his devotion to the seafaring bric-a-brac he accumulated — pilots wheels, weirdly shaped coral, diving helmets, a dried barracuda, shell coasters, driftwood — all of which gave him a connection to a place rich in history and whose bland, commercialized present he steadfastly rejected.

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

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

Increasingly out of place in an environment taken over by Ann Taylor and Coach, he was one of the last of the old tenants to go, on the heels of vintage restaurants like Sweets, established in 1842, and just down the street.

Before then he had reigned supreme at his cluttered store in the middle of Schermerhorn Row, the early 19th-century block of brick houses on Fulton Street now designated a landmark. Hill was the “consummate waterfront junk shop-souvenir store, occasionally aspiring to an antique shop,” Neill said. Sometimes lines of people waiting to get in stretched to the corner.

Hill opened Captain Hook’s with the Revolution’s Bicentennial in 1976 and remained until the turn of the century, setting up shop “when there was nothing there,” his wife, Trudy Hill, recalled. He had hitched himself to the urban renewal dreams that had percolated through lower Manhattan in the late 1960s and ’70s, convinced he would make a fortune from his curate’s egg of a store in a location that was becoming a major tourist attraction.

A natural salesman, pushing $2 postcards on customers along with the fancier stuff, he was also persistent about collecting tips. He worked like a demon, and did well enough to afford a house for a time on Long Island’s North Shore in affluent Sands Point, though he was a “misfit” there, his son Matthew said, surrounded by wealthy corporate founders.

His other son, Jason, said: “How crazy was it that somebody who flipped items was able to make it to Sands Point? A person who went to garage sales?”

At one point Hill charged 25 cents merely for the privilege of viewing his vast collection of nautical trinkets. Some of them, like the sextants and the $500 spy glasses and the $2,000 ship models, were quite valuable. But most customers would leave only a little poorer, having been talked into, say, a rubber snake by the persistent Hill, part huckster and part sincere enthusiast — a “good merchandizer,” Neill said.

Hill had spent weekends in the 1980s combing farmhouse barns in New England and haunting flea markets to fill the store. “He would go to places nobody else went,” his wife said.

He embraced the Captain Hook character immortalized in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and numerous film adaptations. He would pose with a knife in his teeth and a whale tooth around his neck, to the delight of schoolchildren and the bemusement of customers from around the world. In his store’s early days, he would even introduce his father, a World War II veteran, as Poppa Hook and his mother as Momma Hook.

“He stayed Captain Hook forever,” Trudy Hill said. “Good friends would call and say, ‘Where’s Hook?’’’

To go into 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 shtick was merely part of it. “Embarrassing? It was like, ‘Oh, my God, Dad, don’t do that.’”

But “he doesn’t care what people think — he cared about making people happy,” Matthew Hill said. And customers went along with it. “Welcome aboard!” Joe Hill would yell out.

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

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

“They made it into a shopping mall and he was very upset with that,” she added. “His store was different. It was more than an income.”

There were offers to reopen the store elsewhere, but Hill was a New York pirate and did not want to move. Before closing the place, there had been years of tension and a five-year court battle over the rent rise with his landlord, the Rouse Corp., which ran the commercial side of the seaport.

“They didn’t like him because he wasn’t fancy,” Trudy Hill said. “They always wanted to kick him out. They wanted only the upper-class stores.”

Joseph Stanley Hill was born on Nov. 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, going for the cod off Montauk Point, on Long Island’s East End, and in later years Hill always had a boat. He graduated from the New York Institute of Technology in 1968, served in the Green Beret reserves, and became an engineer, eventually working on projects for two large East Coast construction companies.

His heart was elsewhere, though. His first purchase of a nautical item was an old ship’s wheel, and he never looked back. He had saved enough from working in construction to open a small nautical goods store in Port Washington, on Long Island. This was soon followed by the store in Schermerhorn Row, which had to be renovated from top to bottom, his wife recalled.

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

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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