Driftwood Is Not a Species
Be careful what you wish for.
Carving out a successful business in Montauk is no easy task.
Not very long ago, Long Island's easternmost hamlet was an afterthought to New York City's migratory herd during the summer months. Either too remote… separated from the chic "Hamptons" by the Napeague Stretch… or simply too rough around the edges. Perhaps the scent of lobster traps drying in the sun was no match for that of fresh cut grass tennis courts.
But somewhere along the way, this funky beach town (which could seamlessly be relocated in Southern California or Eastern Australia under the disguise of moonlight)… this place my family has called home for now four generations… has suddenly appealed to the masses.
The weekend warriors have exchanged their golf clubs for spinning rods, their polo ponies and mallets for stand up paddle boards. And everyone wants to be a surfer. NYC has embraced the grit… and without asking anyone's permission… has made Montauk chic.
As inexplicably as a working class family will, without hesitation, wear Mickey Mouse ears during their Disney vacation, so too do the new summer folk of Montauk have a costume: fedoras and lightweight scarves. It's actually more of a uniform… a compulsory statement declaring with absolute certainty that they are on vacation.
But with that flare for fashion also comes an understanding, appreciation and desire to also have a slice of design, decor and architecture. That is where we come in. It was no mistake that we opened the Antique Lumber Company of Montauk on Main Street three summers ago. The timing was right. The influx of interest to this corner of the world has equated to curious weekenders evolving into summer renters, and for some… second homeowners. A select few have purchased and resurrected old businesses here. This is not a trend. Montauk has been discovered.
Ten years ago, many locals would have fought this realization, myself included. But simply add children of our own, mortgages, and the fact that the majority of real Montaukers own their own businesses, and it becomes evident that to fight is not only a dubious battle, but one that is counterproductive to our own quality of life.
So now I sell reclaimed Chestnut barn board for $16 per square foot and take my family to Mexico in February.
Nonetheless… my newfound harmony is occasionally disrupted.
It is important to understand that The Antique Lumber Co knows the story for all of its material. No matter if it is a 3" thick live-edge slab of Maple that was milled from a 40' tall tree in the Smokey Mountains, or a 20' long hand-hewn beam salvaged from a 19th century barn in Western Pennsylvania… we know what the species is… we know where it came from… and we know what we had to do to get it here.
Which, if you think about it… is the exact opposite of how driftwood gets to Montauk.
Felled trees from Connecticut rivers are carried across the Block Island Sound and scatter the north shores of Montauk every autumn and winter. And with that delivery also arrives shards of marine construction (the scent of creosote still evident saturated into its grain), garbage, fishing lures, sea lice and any other flotsam and jetsam one could imagine.
And yet the word "driftwood" evokes a sense of exotic beauty to anyone who didn't grow up on the ocean. I suppose historians must feel the same way about how Hollywood has romanticized pirates. The unfortunate truth is that neither driftwood nor pirates are as nice as you think they are.
Last week, a customer patiently waited until I was finished speaking with another local builder. When I addressed him, he nervously stabbed his hands into the pockets of his skinny jeans and said, "I may not be in the right place… but do you make things out of driftwood?"
"No sir," I answered. "All of our material is kiln-dried and custom-milled. We also identify the wood by its species… and… driftwood is not a species."
Visibly not satisfied with my answer, he delved deeper into the exotic abyss, adding, "Well then… do you know of any place here in Montauk that would sell interesting individual pieces of driftwood, so that maybe I can build something myself?"
"Well," I said. "There's the beach… and all the wood you find there is free."
With that he twitched a smile and jerked a half nod before turning for the door. In the afternoon sun he adjusted the brim of his fedora and walked towards the south beaches… where there is no driftwood.
I watched the southwest winds gently lift the American flag in front of the shop. Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" played from the iPod dock. I walked through the showroom and into my wood shop and took a sip from a gallon of water, now at room temperature, and began sanding a cross-cut Spruce slab with a Walnut butterfly inlay.