Rope nets and glass floats and wooden buoys drift among the overhead shelving, and a trio of wire fish twist on fishing line strung from the ceiling of the crowded shop. A faded toy crab hunkers on a vintage scale beside a shelf stacked with powder blue T-shirts that read, "Fish Happens." On the back wall, a stuffed sailfish with grand blue fin and a bent needle of a bill overlooks the steel sinks. In the glass case are a dozen plates and bowls of steamer clams, ling cod, king salmon, picked Dungeness crab, petrale sole and brick red hunks of salmon he smokes in a 4-by-8-foot smokehouse out back. To walk into Mr. Fish Seafood is to step back in time to a pre-foodie era when there were only two kinds of salt and nobody worried what a fish case looked like on Instagram.
You'd be hard pressed to find somebody who remembers a time when the squat, shingled Mr. Fish Seafood shop wasn't a fixture on Eureka's Broadway. Well, aside from Mark McCulloch, who bought the business from his friend Les Amundsen 47 years ago. Now McCulloch is ready to retire. A handwritten note taped to the glass of the refrigerated case informs customers the shop will be closed indefinitely starting Oct. 26.
"It's been in my mind the last few years," says McCulloch, dressed in a worn white butcher's smock. He adds that his wife, Mary Ann, who's already enjoying retirement, "has been bugging me to retire. ... To give you an idea, she's on her way back from Paris right now."
An upcoming shoulder surgery has pushed McCulloch to finally set a date for turning over the "closed" sign. About a year ago, while hauling a pair of 20-pound bags of oysters from his truck, one slipped, injuring his shoulder. The damage has worsened since then and he says his doctor urged him to schedule the surgery as soon as possible, which will be a few days after the last filet goes out the door.
McCulloch says he was on his way to selling the outfit this summer but the deal fell through. Now it's back on the market — the business and the equipment — for $75,000. He says there have been a few nibbles but nobody on the hook yet.
McCulloch's first foray into seafood sales was even more pared down. "I'd been selling crab out of the back of my truck in Hoopa and Willow Creek," he says, standing by the scale atop the refrigerated case. That was back in 1970 or so, shortly after he'd moved up from Covelo, California, to attend the College of the Redwoods. Amundsen, for whom he was selling, only had the business about five months when McCulloch says he bought it and took on the mantle of Mr. Fish.
"You know, the nice thing about these lobsters is if you don't sell 'em, you get to eat 'em yourself," McCulloch says over the counter to a customer who usually comes in to buy for a local restaurant. "You want those gift wrapped?" he teases.
The uncle jokes are as much a staple as the fish, though McCulloch concedes not everyone on Yelp gets his jokes. Another customer rattles off his order, including six oysters.
"Was that six or six dozen?" McCulloch deadpans.
A woman who's been waiting at the back of the shop comes up for her turn and confesses she's never come in before despite driving past all the time. She picks out a couple of filets and adds a tip onto her bill. "At least I've been here once," she says.
Competition from Costco has "made a difference," admits McCulloch. "It's hard to compete with but I don't sell the kinds of stuff they do." Most of what Mr. Fish carries is local and, on top of the fresh fish, there's a list of frozen items to choose from. The majority of his customers, he notes, ask the same thing when they come in: What's fresh and what's local? At Christmastime, he says there are still lines out his door and he moves 500 to 1,000 pounds of boiled crab in a day. "It's convenient for people to pick fish [at Costco] but nobody harasses their customers there. It's a fringe benefit." Business, he insists, is still good. "I've taken a downturn," he says, tipping his head to his shoulder.
While he's been elbow-deep in seafood for nearly half a century, McCulloch is no fisherman. "Me and the ocean don't get along that well," he says, adding that he's been on the water a few times and found he gets seasick. He didn't even like fish as a kid growing up in Napa, though now he brings home whatever looks good at the shop and has it a couple of times a week. He shrugs. "Things change."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.