Charles Gay scooped up a stack of telephone books left at the door of his family’s business and took a moment to consider the cover art of a quintessential Lowcountry scene.
“They used our docks,” he said.
Beyond him were the shrimp docks of Gay Fish Co., a St. Helena landmark and the subject of many other photos than the one that graced the phone book cover. The seafood operation includes shrimp boats and a retail store selling fresh catches just off Sea Island Parkway. The road serves as the main route for visitors to Harbor, Hunting and Fripp islands.
Gay owns the business with his older sister, Hilda Gay Upton and brother, Robert. The company has been in business since their father, John Henry Gay, earned his captain’s license in 1948, and the siblings all live within several hundred yards of the dusty driveway back to the original concrete building first used to shuck oysters.
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Who would believe the property is for sale?
The 2 1/2-acre site has been listed for about two months. The asking price is $1.25 million.
“I’ve got mixed feelings on selling it,” Charles said. “But I do know that’s the best and only way we’re going to come out.”
Hurricane Matthew destroyed much of the dock in October, and bringing it back completely could cost almost $1 million, he said. The seafood market, closed since the storm, usually reopens this time of year and could again if the property hasn’t sold when shrimping begins, Hilda said.
But the family says the time is right for a potential sale. They hope it remains a working dock.
“We could love for shrimping to continue in this area,” Hilda said. “... We’re not going anywhere. We would love to know there are shrimp boats that still want to shrimp.”
They are hesitant to invest in necessary updates to the building with the prospect of a sale and the building being torn down. And shrimping has slowed in the face of rising overhead and competition from imported shrimp.
In its heyday, about 20 large trawlers worked from the docks, Robert said.
Now there are three large boats and a couple of smaller ones, including one Robert still shrimps.
The company includes a wholesale operation and a market, which benefits from the busy highway during the summer months. The market likely will open again soon if the property doesn’t sell.
“We’ve got it safe again,” Robert said of the hurricane repairs. “And we’re going to go work. We’ve got to.”
Charles said his phone rings regularly with calls from people asking the family not to sell. A longtime wholesale customer said he would stop selling shrimp if the business sold.
Hilda and her husband, Bob — a retired shrimp boat captain — own Shrimp Shack across the highway and live on the property. Charles still rides the horses he keeps at his home, within a short ATV ride from the door of Gay Fish Company.
But the siblings are aging — Hilda and Charles are in their 70s and Robert in his 60s.
The real estate listing notes a variety of potential uses for the property, including fishing or ecotourism charters, boat retail or service, or a restaurant.
A potential buyer has expressed interest in keeping the name, Charles said.
“I hate to see it go away,” he said. “It’s been good and bad over the years.
“It’s taught us a lot.”