Built to Last

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“We want this turtle,” the lanky young man yelled into the open door.

“Well, come on down,” came the shout from the showroom inside. “You’re the next contestant!”

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David B. Culpepper clearly loves his job, loves being surrounded by brass and heavy glass, dark wood and rope as thick as your calf. He co-owns “Nautical Decor” on US 1 near downtown West Palm Beach, Florida. Most merchandise here can be divided into two basic categories: salvaged maritime pieces that will be repurposed by homeowners, and products manufactured to look like they’ve been around forever.

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David B. Culpepper, in his office at Nautical Decor.

Like the carved wooden turtle. It’s a present for Justin Riley’s boss. Justin and two friends crew a luxury yacht called the “Beach Girl.” They stop in at the store every year when the big boat anchors here.

“The prices are a third of what you’d see in Nantucket, or even downtown Palm Beach,” Justin says, as the trio cart the life-size mahogany sea turtle out to the car.

Culpepper says something like 80% of his business is wholesale. Retailers all over the country order from him. But he says plenty of people walk in off the street looking for just the right accent for a deck or a pool or a patio.

He says it’s hard to tell, sometimes what will take off. Bronze deck lights, for instance.

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Culpepper holds a bronze deck light: $150.

“We’d get a few of these in as ship’s fixtures,” Culpepper says, “and people started putting them on as house lights because they’re bronze and resist the salt water.”

Then there are the stainless steel light fixtures, big as snare drums. “We sell the snot out of those,” he says. It still seems to surprise him. People discovered they make distinctive lamps when hung from a condo ceiling.

There are two Culpeppers here. David A. Culpepper opened the the place about 15 years ago. As a retired Coast Guardsman, he loved the sea and all the marvelous hardware that goes with making a living off the water. He opened Nautical Decor to feed his passion and the tastes of like-minded customers. Son David B. joined the crew a few years later.

“We travel overseas to ship-breaking yards and ship-building yards looking for high quality stuff,” he says. They send ten 40-foot shipping containers full of salvage back to their warehouse every year.

“Dad goes to all the nice places with the pretty beaches,” he gripes, jokingly. That leaves the seamier ports of call for him to visit.

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The antique brass and teak fixtures are designed and built to suffer through the harshest conditions on the planet, remaining solid and shiny for decades. Culpepper says his customers appreciate stuff that’s quality and not disposable.

“This harks back to a time,” he says, “when things were built to last.”
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