Bondo Wyszpolski

Yvetta Williams sold seashells by the seashore

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Yvetta Williams at home. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

by Bondo Wyszpolski

The ocean bears strange and exotic fruit, and for nearly 40 years Dick and Yvetta Williams offered much of it for sale at their shops in Ports O’ Call Village and later along Harbor Blvd. in San Pedro. They closed their final store on Dec. 20, 1998, and retired. Dick Williams has since passed away, Ports O’ Call is gone, but Yvetta is a treasure trove of memories from a life well lived and a fascinating bygone era.

Dick Williams and the finback whale skeleton at The Sea, circa 1975. Photo courtesy of Yvetta Williams.

Abalone shells galore

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The first piece of jewelry Dick gave Yvetta was a pendant he made from a broken, green abalone shell he found one day when the two of them were at the beach in Portuguese Bend. They were still just dating at the time, but this incident seems to encapsulate (in a nutshell if not a seashell) the many years they would spend together. They married in 1957 and moved to the El Mar apartments in downtown San Pedro, on 15th Street.

Dick and his older brother had been building houses in Portuguese Bend, but when they saw cracks in the road they knew something was wrong. In August, 1956, when the extension of Crenshaw Blvd. was under construction, a wide swath of the hillside began slipping towards the sea. And it’s doing so, even today.

In the not-so-distant past, what was regarded as bountiful sea life was hunted or gathered to the point of near-extinction. The abalone is a case in point. Commercial harvesting was legally permitted at one time. After the abalone were processed and the meat removed, the shells needed to be loaded back onto boats, taken out to sea, and dumped overboard.

But as everyone knows, the insides of abalone shells, especially when polished, have a blue-green and rainbow-like shimmer.

So Dick asked some of the divers and processors a question: If I bring over my trailer, will you put in the shells? They agreed. It saved them a second trip from the harbor. (These days, gathering abalone is off-limits until at least 2021; rising sea temperatures have also stalled their comeback).

“We kept piling up abalone shells,” Yvetta says, and of course they wondered exactly what they were going to do with all of them.

That’s when they began making table tops and trays, trinkets and wall decorations. At first, Yvetta created tabletop mosaics by cementing pieces of shell side by side, but this was vastly time-consuming. Then, using the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company’s polyester plastics, Dick figured out how to embed the shells in the clear material, which also preserved their fresh, glistening look. They called their company Chel-Rey and sold their products wholesale to various stores.

In 1963, Ports O’ Call opened in San Pedro. It was a “village” of restaurants, fish markets, fast food eateries and souvenir shops. “We were the first people to sign a lease,” Yvetta says. “We opened a store called the Mermaid’s Dowry.”

They took possession of a tiny space. A month later the Williamses expanded into the adjacent space as well.

Business must have been promising, because in 1967 Dick and Yvetta opened a second store, Baskets Aboard the Boat, which sold baskets and wood products. They operated out of the lower level of the ferry boat “Sierra Nevada.”

During one holiday season, Yvetta recalls, her husband created a Christmas tree out of lights and set it underwater by the gangplank. That proved to be an enchanting sight for people approaching the store.

A couple of years later, they decided to sell the business on the ferry and open The Sea on Harbor Blvd. The “Sierra Nevada” sank a year.

Dick (holding a walrus skull) and Yvetta Williams in 1981. Photo courtesy of Yvetta Williams

A sea captain’s daughter

Seated in the living room of her home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Yvetta points to a picture on the wall of a sailing ship. Her father, she says, lived on that ship until he was nine: “By the time he was nine, he knew everything the captain knew.” And who was the captain? The boy’s father, Yvetta’s grandfather.

However, in stormy weather, having climbed up the mast in an attempt to find land, her grandfather fell to the deck.

“It was bad luck to have a dead man aboard, but they were good friends with the ship’s carpenter who made him a coffin… and, with a 24-hour guard on it, they got back to Nova Scotia, where he’s buried.”

Yvetta’s grandmother had a sister in Oakland, and so she moved there with Yvetta’s father. After finishing high school, her father worked for a tailor in San Francisco. “He became a fine tailor,” she says. “He used to make me suits and things. I learned to sew from my father.”

But then he, too, went to sea. “He became the youngest captain that Mobil Oil had, and he took boats from San Francisco to the Orient.” After one overseas trip his very young daughter (Yvetta) took one look at him and asked her mother, “Who is that man?” “It’s your father,” her mother replied.

“My daughter doesn’t know me!” her father exclaimed, so he quit going to sea and worked for Socony on the wharfs, “loading the ships on Terminal Island until he retired.”

Yvetta, who had been born a couple of years earlier, in 1932 at San Pedro Hospital, has lived her entire life near the harbor, or we should say always within sight, sound, and smell of the ocean.

At the time, the family was living in San Pedro on 9th Street, and Margaret Lee Chadwick lived one street over on 10th. The Chadwicks had founded a school, with the Roessler family, on land donated by Frank Vanderlip, and were looking for young students.

Yvetta was in the school’s inaugural class, then known as Chadwick Seaside School (which opened in 1938). “I attended first and second grade there,” she says. “I could have kept on, except that my mother thought I was getting a bit too big-headed with the people who had horses and such. She said, ‘No, that’s not our life,’ and so I went to Cabrillo for one year.” Fifth and sixth grades were spent at Miraleste Elementary School, seventh and eighth at Dana Junior High, and then Yvetta attended San Pedro High School. Dick Williams had also studied there, but a few years earlier.

After she tells me this, I look out the window at the panoramic view far below and tell Yvetta that she can probably see every place she’s ever been. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not by much.

In its own way, her home is hardly less impressive, and that’s because Yvetta and Dick worked out the designs themselves. Then they spent five years building it. A labor of love, and imagination. This house is also where the couple’s three children, Eddie, Loralynn, and Ann, were raised.

Yvetta Williams with shells, lots of shells, in 1975. Photo courtesy of Yvetta Williams

In its heyday, and aftermath

In 1970, after Baskets Aboard the Boat was sold, Dick and Yvetta opened The Sea at 525 N. Harbor Blvd. They filled it with things redolent of all the oceans in the world: “We had lots of coral, driftwood, bones, rare seashells, minerals, and lots of items for boaters and people who loved the ocean.” One of many unusual things, Yvetta recalls, was “a piece of a broken Indian bowl made from steatite,” found by a diver off of Catalina, “with a rock scallop growing in the broken bowl.”

For me, these delicious descriptions recall words from “Tereza Batista,” by the Bahian writer Jorge Amado. “There were all sorts of things in the sea: fishes and castaways, black octopuses and silver rays, ships from the other side of the world, and sargasso plantations.”

In the same year the store opened, a 40-foot long skeleton of a finback whale (it had died and washed ashore at Puerto Peñasco in Mexico) was acquired and assembled. Around the same time, the skeleton of a yearling gray whale came into their possession, although there would be no place to display it until 10 years later, “when The Sea moved two blocks south” to 305 N. Harbor Blvd. Passersby got a kick out of a sign that told them, essentially, that the ocean had decided to pick up and relocate.

“We imported shells from all over the world,” Yvetta says, “and that’s why our prices were so good. [Dick] did the cleaning, and I did the selling and rearranging.” As for making contact with merchants in far-flung corners of the globe: “Well, at that time there’s no internet [but] there were fax machines… We made some mistakes with people, and then finally we got people who  were good so we just kept going with them. Anyway, we had really great inventory; we had great suppliers.”

It was in 1980 that “the sea” moved two blocks south, into a building the Williamses constructed on the site of the old Del Mar hotel, which they had owned, and which the City ordered torn down on account of its cockroaches. The couple had also owned the El Mar apartments, which Dick bought when they were first married. At the new site the inventory was enlarged and the two whale skeletons were placed high overhead. Swimming underneath the finback whale was a human skeleton, dubbed “Joana,” to evoke comparisons with Jonah of Biblical renown. Joana, too, as we can see from old photographs, would have fit snugly in the belly of the whale.

The Sea apparently was part emporium, nautical museum, souvenir shop and curiosity shop, with the magic of the ocean in every corner. Fiberglas sea creatures dangled or swooped down from the rafters, a drinking fountain in the entry hall was made from a giant clam shell, and, I like this quote, “The dolphin skeleton is what Flipper looks like without his clothes.”

“We had a talking pirate at the entrance of the store,” Yvetta says, “who talked to people coming in. The message changed when a new person came in. Our friends who were musicians would come in and play sea shanties.”

The inverted 1940s lifeboat that served as a canopy above the front door was from the hospital ship “Repose.” Dick bought it from someone who had it on a lot in Wilmington. Molded scallop shells stretched along the upper rim of the building’s facade and atop the low wall running along the sidewalk.

In 1981, the Mermaid’s Dowry at Ports O’ Call was sold, along with its inventory, but The Sea kept rolling until the last days of 1998. And throughout all those years Yvetta came to be something of an expert on shells and sea life, as well as butterflies and plants and the critters that live or lived in the hills (she’s the co-author of a book about flowers, profusely illustrated with her photographs). She gave hiking tours through the fields and hilltops until she was slowed down by a broken leg.

While her mobility isn’t what it was, Yvetta remains a wealth of knowledge and insight about local history, about the various flora and fauna and even the previous inhabitants who once made the Palos Verdes Peninsula their home. That’s a story in itself. She often gives talks and presentations, and gathers up teaching materials for docent classes at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center and elsewhere.

Down below, near the harbor in San Pedro where Yvetta and her husband ran their businesses, change has been rampant. “It was very sad seeing Ports O’ Call being demolished,” Yvetta says. An upscale development will soon rise from the ashes. However, “I don’t think that San Pedro Market Place is a very creative name,” Yvetta says, referring to the new moniker. “It was wrong to close the old Ports O’ Call restaurant when they still had bookings and then let it sit.”

Along Harbor Blvd, at the base of 6th and 7th streets, towering office buildings and condos and hotels are filling up the skyline. Nearby, artists’ studios and galleries are seeing rents go up as gentrification sets in.

As for the final location of The Sea, at 305 N. Harbor, it’s been doing business as Creative Aquatic and Pet Supply. The molded shells remain, embedded in the wall and below the rooftop, and so too the boat canopy over the entrance, though whitewashed and weathered.

The area’s colorful history, its old look and feel, holds on, just barely, but more and more only in fading memories, withered newspapers, and yellowed photographs. In sharing her story, Yvetta Williams brings a small piece of that vanishing puzzle back to life.

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