A recent conversation spurred a memory for me of an old friend, a man that my wife and I met on the island many years ago when wife and I had very little money. Truth be told, we have very little money now, but we had even less back then. Anyway, we had gone to the island because my sister had purchased what we saw as a “vacation home”.
For the grand sum of $7,000, my sister had acquired a wonderful little one bedroom camper that was parked in Tom’s Cove campgrounds. We were excited to jump on the deal that she had offered us, which was we could stay there for the mere price of mowing the grass and cleaning out the toilet. My excitement was soon dashed because the latter was needed much more often than I had originally anticipated. Although the camper was hooked up to city sewage, the lines would regularly get clogged, and I would spend a day or two of our five making sure that the plumbing worked.
As my family and I had no money to speak of, one of our favorite things to do was to go window shopping (my son once asked what kind of windows we were looking for, but that’s a different story). The many shops that we toured were small, modest, and authentically Chincoteague. A few had foreign made trinkets like shot glasses with glued on stickers that we could have purchased at our local dollar store, while others had hand crafted artwork by local artisans that we couldn’t dream of affording.
As we were wondering around the town trying to find something else to investigate, we rounded the corner off Church St. onto Willow and stumbled upon what appeared to be a store sign. It was a simple sign that looked more like a historical placard than an actual retail location. It appeared to have originally been white, but was aging to a humble gray in the summer sun. It simply stated “Ark II” on it. We weren’t sure if it was really a store, but thought we might as well take a look. We walked onto the old creaky wooden porch, and opened the equally creaky wooden screen door. When I tried the door, it opened and I could see a quaint little store inside. It was modest little shop with artwork scattered about what was originally the parlor of a turn of the century home.
As we stood for a moment waiting for our eyes to adjust to light after being in the summer sun, from behind an old glass display case came a hearty “Well, Hello there!” I must admit that the voice startled me, as I hadn’t seen anyone in the store. Behind that glass case was man, not small in stature, with a long beard full of salt and pepper plumage He smiled and asked how our day was going. It was an unassuming question that now seems telling of the man that asked it. He didn’t start the conversation trying to sell me anything. In fact, he never tried to sell me anything. He relayed stories, showed me things, and told me how he made things. He was so excited because he had started this “new” thing of taking the inside of oyster shells and polishing them into fine jewelry. This was a break from his usual painting.
When I looked around the shop, I saw there was rack after rack of cards and pictures of various sizes. At first, I didn’t realize that all the artwork all share one thing, the signature of John Hamberger. When I finally noticed that the greeting cards were the same art as the massive paintings on the walls, the gentleman laughed. He said “Yeah, I can sell more cards than I can of my paintings”. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I was actually talking to the man that painted all of these beautiful nature paintings. There were paintings of egrets, whales, manatees, and all sorts of marine life. To this day, I’m still amazed at how lifelike this artist could bring a painted fish.
We stayed in that shop for quite some time chatting. John told me story after story about how he created the different artwork in the studio. He told us how one of his paintings even sold to one of the Beatles. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember which painting, or which Beatle. My wife finally found a little ring that fit her perfectly in the display case that was only five dollars. We bought it and my wife decided to wear it rather than put it in bag. As my wife and I started on our way home, we talked about how we’d like to buy one of his paintings. It was a dream, because his paintings cost at the least hundreds of dollars, some were even thousands. We eventually scratched up enough to buy one of his posters for $30, a very tidy sum for us in those days.
We visited John every time that we went to the island. He was always a happy, warm, and inviting man. He remembered our faces each time, and asked us about our kids, our home, and how things were “back in Baltimore”. His shop was always one of the warm welcome spots of the isle. It exemplified what we loved about Chincoteague. It was a place that was humble, but full of charm, talent, wit, and love. A few years later, his shop was closed. We weren’t sure why but thought maybe he was on vacation. We later discovered that he had passed, and his son was selling the shop. Both my wife and I were saddened that John wouldn’t be there anymore, but we both feel blessed that we met his soul. I look forward to meeting it again one day.
John Hamberger is a published author, editor and illustrator of children’s and natural history books. Among his publications are Little Whale, Magic World of Words, a concise guide called Pet Birds, Sea Monsters of Long Ago, Seisam, Birth of A Pond, and The Hidden Magic of Seeds.
For more Chincoteague memories, see this brief video that I made a few years ago: