In 1955, 10-year-old David Thomas started selling red abalone shells from a wagon on a corner of his father’s property in Morro Bay.
Thomas estimates that he sold more than 1,000 abalone shells, all carefully sorted and cleaned.
Prices back then ranged from a dime apiece to three for a buck for the really nice ones. Now the big, shiny shells retail for $22.99 each at Thomas’ popular store at 590 Embarcadero in Morro Bay, The Shell Shop.
“Some of the people I met in the shop in the ‘60s, I’m still doing business with their kids,” Thomas, now 78, said.
On April 21, the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce will honor The Shell Shop as its 2022 Business of the Year.
At its “Alice in Wonderland”-themed community awards gala, the chamber also will give its first-ever Living Treasure award to marine advocate and consultant Cathy Novak; honor Morro Bay Maritime Museum volunteer Bonnie Jones as the 2022 Citizen of the Year and highlight Project Surf Camp as the nonprofit organization of the year.
“I give my parents all the credit for our success and my career,” said Thomas, who also got his love of and respect for the sea from them.
What brought Thomas family to Morro Bay?
Thomas’s mom, Louise, was raised on a 50-acre apple farm in Sebastapol. She and her future husband, Laurence, attended the same high school.
“Dad wanted to fish,” David Thomas said. “Nobody had any money then, so he bought a rickety little fishing boat and worked out of Bodega Bay for a while. But he realized there wasn’t a future in that.”
“They loaded everything they had in this little boat and headed for Alaska,” Thomas said, ending up at Craig Island, near Ketchikan.
“Dad fished for salmon out of that little boat until he could buy a beautiful trawling boat he had made in Seattle,” Thomas said. “When my sister (Beryl Harris of Cambria) and I came along, my parents realized that wasn’t the place to raise a family. So we moved to Newport, Oregon.”
How they got to Morro Bay is another treasured Thomas tale.
Laurence Thomas was fishing along the West Coast, his son said.
“Dad was used to bad weather, but it was really terrible that day,” David Thomas said. “He’d heard about a town called Morro Bay that had a harbor. He’d just about gotten to the harbor entrance … and the weather there was beautiful.”
Laurence Thomas reportedly said to his family, “Wow! This is the place. This is where I’m going to live.”
The Thomases bought a property on Embarcadero — then “just a sandy road,” David Thomas said — in 1947.
“There was a real long cabin, painted an ugly green, with nasturtiums all over the place,” he recalled. “They eventually built a house on that same site.”
According to Thomas, his father fished for albacore, petrale sole and sand dabs while searching for jade and other treasures.
Laurence Thomas and another fisherman also did salvage work, diving for the remains of U.S. Navy destroyers.
There wasn’t much left of the ships, his son said. “Mostly just brass valves and piping to sell for scrap.”
The family kept some pieces, however, including an anchor that now sits outside the Shell Shop and a ship’s bell from the U.S.S. Young that’s displayed at the Morro Bay Maritime Museum.
David Thomas said his father also established a bay shrimp fishery between Morro Bay and Cayucos, but the tiny crustaceans were a tough sell.
“Mom worked with a fish processor in Morro Bay, and had to teach them what to do with the shrimp,” Thomas said with a chuckle. That fishery is shut down now, he added.
The Thomas family’s most enduring legacy may be its shell business.
The family started operating a stand in 1956 at the corner of Embarcadero and Marina Street. They built the current home of the Shell Shop in 1963.
Thomas took time out from the shell business only to graduate from Morro Bay High School, serve in the Navy for four years and take business courses at Cuesta College.
In 1967, Thomas met his future wife, who was then working for William Morris Agency in Hollywood. Her doctor father had bought some shells from The Shell Shop for his collection.
“When Justine saw them, she got interested,” Thomas said. “Her dad told her, ‘If you want to buy shells, go to Morro Bay. It’s the best shell shop in California.’ ”
She did, and as Thomas recalled, “As soon as I saw her, I knew she was the one.”
Thomas managed to get Justine’s phone number and called her later, telling her, “If you come back up here, I’ll take you out for an abalone dinner.”
The couple ate at The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar in Morro Bay, and they were married about a year later.
Thomas shared business responsibilities with his parents for decades, running the shop while his dad focused on the back-office end of things.
Now both parents have passed on.
David and Justine Thomas have no children, so the shop and its dedicated employees are a way of life for him. Many of his staffers have worked at the store for a long time, including retired Atascadero teacher Tony Merrill.
Merrill started working at The Shell Shop part-time 37 years ago and then went full-time after he stopped teaching. He retired from The Shell Shop on Tuesday.
What does The Shell Shop sell?
Thomas estimates that the Shell Shop is packed with more than a million shells, with more in storage at its offsite warehouse.
According to the store’s website, Thomas and his family have amassed one of the West Coast’s largest assortments of collector’s-quality shells, many of them displayed at the store in glass-fronted cases.
One rare specimen for sale at the store is a 69-millimeter Trophon catalinensis shell collected south of Santa Catalina Island. It costs $2,000.
The middle of the shop is filled with shelves, stacks and bins of more common mollusk and marine animal shells, with prices starting at 10 cents apiece.
Specimens for sale include cowry, conch, cockle, cone snail, nautilus, and sea urchin shells, as well as sea stars and coral.
The Shell Shop’s stock also includes jewelry, nightlights, Christmas ornaments, wind chimes, macrame chandeliers and rope-wrapped floats.
Some items on display, such as three big, framed sets of shark jaws, aren’t for sale.
The biggest jaws were featured in a traveling shark exhibit for seven years, Thomas said.
According to the Shell Shop’s website, any rare shells that the store sells were collected before doing so was restricted.
“That’s why we have to have such a big warehouse,” Thomas said.
“These shells were the natural byproduct of the commercial fishing industry, making The Shell Shop one of the pioneer ‘green’ businesses that focused on reusing what was discarded by others,” the business says on its website.
The Shell Shop is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Morro Bay chamber’s awards gala, Morro Bay in Wonderland, will start at 5 p.m. Friday, April 21, at the Morro Bay Community Center, 1001 Kennedy Way in Morro Bay. Tickets are $95 or $750 for a table of eight.
For details, call the chamber at 805-772-4467 or visit morrochamber.org.
This story was originally published April 17, 2023, 5:30 AM.