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Old men sit in old chairs just inside the front door of Clyde Phillips Seafood Market in Swansboro. The chairs are simple: metal frames, vinyl seats. The men’s faces are

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Old men sit in old chairs just inside the front door of Clyde Phillips Seafood Market in Swansboro. The chairs are simple: metal frames, vinyl seats. The men’s faces are

A Fish House Tradition in Swansboro

Old men sit in old chairs just inside the front door of Clyde Phillips Seafood Market in Swansboro. The chairs are simple: metal frames, vinyl seats. The men’s faces are tanned and deeply wrinkled around the eyes, telling of years in the sun and wind. Their hair is gray or white or gone. They are the town’s unofficial coffee club — friends, acquaintances, fishermen who have known each other for 40, 50, 60, even 70 years. One of them could pass for Santa Claus if he donned a red suit — which he did last Christmas and handed out candy canes to Swansboro elementary students.

Phillips can count on members of Swansboro’s unofficial coffee club, like Clyde Robert Keagy (left) and James “Porky” Briggs, for support. photograph by Baxter Miller

The men show up on the regular, sometimes more than once a day. “Most times, they’re standing here waiting at the door when I come to open up,” says James “Jimmy” Phillips, owner of Clyde Phillips Seafood Market. They show up, too, when the trawler Capt. Phillips comes in after days at sea, helping unload 4,000 or more pounds of shrimp. With well-practiced movements, the coffee clubbers carry, clean, and pack the shrimp in pallets — ice on the bottom, 50 pounds of shrimp, ice on the top.

“I guess they earn their coffee,” Phillips says.

He was about 12 when his father started the business, just the right age to help gut fish, head shrimp, and clean boats. When he turned 18, he thought he might like to do something different, so he got a job on a dredge digging channels. But that only lasted a couple of years. “A lady friend brought me back,” Phillips says. “We got married, and I’ve been here ever since.”

• • •

Fish houses used to be commonplace in Swansboro. Old-timers remember four or five of them on Front Street downtown and several more on the causeway between Swansboro and Cedar Point, where Clyde Phillips has been since 1954. All the others are gone now, their waterfront property having been converted to more profitable uses. One of the original buildings from the row of Front Street fish houses remains, now housing a tiny gift shop.

Running a fish house isn’t easy — Jimmy Phillips has dealt with flooding, damage from hurricanes, and other challenges. photograph by Baxter Miller

But Clyde Phillips Seafood Market is still there. Same concrete floors, scrubbed out countless times after storms. Same rose pink color on the outside of the building, picked out by Phillips’s father 60 years ago and maintained ever since. Many of the same customers, too — or their descendants. Old photos hang on the walls, a bit crooked and mounted high, almost to the ceiling.

And, of course, there’s Jimmy Phillips himself, now 80 years old and walking with a slight limp. He says that business is harder today than ever before. Yet if you stop into his market any day of the week, he will almost certainly be there, cleaning fish, weighing shrimp, drinking coffee with his friends.

• • •

“Someone smells like shrimp.” Jack Dudley took his classmate’s comment as an observation, not a complaint. To grow up in Swansboro was to smell and see and eat seafood daily. In the ’50s, boys like Dudley could earn two to three cents a pound heading shrimp at the fish houses in town. “They’d dump all the shrimp on the fish house floor, and we’d squat or sit on an upside-down gallon can,” he says. “You’d start by pulling off the heads with two hands. Once you got proficient, you mashed off the head with your index finger and thumb. You’d get juice all over your shoes and go to school smelling like shrimp.”

Longtime customers of Clyde Phillips Seafood Market look forward to seeing the familiar faces of employees, like Ira Rice, who weigh their shrimp and wrap up their fish. photograph by Baxter Miller

Sometime around sixth grade, Dudley got a job at Clyde Phillips Seafood Market. He had to get there by sunrise to sell bait shrimp to the fishermen heading out early, so he’d pedal his bike down NC Highway 24 in the predawn fog. “When I hit the steep embankment at Phillips’s,” he says, “they could hear my old bike rattling and knew I had arrived.”

For Dudley, who was a year behind Phillips in school, the job was temporary — a way to earn pocket money to spend on Pepsi-Colas and strawberry ice cream at the soda shop on Front Street. For Phillips, it was the beginning of the rest of his life. As his father’s health declined, Phillips took over more and more of the business.

• • •

Not everyone has what it takes to make a living on the water. We might convince ourselves that we have some control over the land — we plow over it, cultivate it, build on it. But those who make their livelihood from the sea know who’s in charge. Maybe that’s why Phillips describes what others would call a disaster as if it’s merely something that happened.

Flooding: “We’ve had floods up to here,” he says, holding his hand about two feet high on the concrete wall. “We just scrub it out and keep going.”

Hurricanes: “We had a fishing pier in the early years. Hurricanes took it out.”

Financial blows: “Capt. Charlie’s sold out a while ago. We sold him 400 to 500 pounds of shrimp and a few hundred pounds of flounder every week. The new place doesn’t buy from us.”

Unending maintenance: “With wood boats, you have to haul them out every spring and clean off the barnacles, paint the bottom, look for worms.”

Worms — shipworms, technically woodboring mollusks, that will stealthily destroy your boat from the inside out: “That worm gets in there, he’s got a little bill like a parrot, and he’ll eat that boat right up.”

Phillips (left) hopes that between his son, Clyde Phillips Jr., and two grandsons who are coming up in the business, the seafood market will remain in the family’s hands for generations to come. photograph by Baxter Miller

Of all the challenges that Phillips has encountered, he says that one of the most difficult has been the increasing regulations on commercial fishing. During the past few decades, he has watched it become more difficult for people to make a living by fishing — and, consequently, more difficult for him to get fresh, local fish in his shop.

“Thirty years ago, we had a lot more going on,” he says. “Buying from fishermen and wholesaling to other dealers is way down. Restaurants don’t buy directly. They can get imported shrimp so much cheaper.”

Phillips has had offers to buy his waterfront property, of course. But he’s turned them all down. “I’ve got my son involved, and I’ve got two grandsons coming up in it,” he says. “As long as we can keep it going, we’ll be here.”

The front door swings open, sending a burst of fresh air into the fish-scented interior, and a customer enters. Phillips rises from his seat with the coffee club and moves behind the counter, softly whistling through his dentures. “What can I get for you?” The woman peers down at the display case, at the glassy-eyed fish staring up from their bed of ice and orders a trout (caught locally) and a flounder (caught in Maryland or New Jersey, most likely, since North Carolina is closed to flounder fishing right now).

Phillips asks a question he’s asked tens of thousands of times: “Head on or head off?” Then he turns, grabs a scaler, and, with shoulders hunched over the stainless steel sink, he scrapes off the scales, severs the heads, and cleans out the entrails. Before the woman can fish her credit card out of her purse, Phillips has her purchase wrapped in newspaper and bagged with a scoop of ice.

Clyde Phillips Seafood Market
104 East Corbett Avenue
Swansboro, NC 28584
(910) 326-4468

This story was published on Jun 06, 2023

Karen Langley Martin

Karen Langley Martin is a writer based in Durham.