Ahoy, bargain hunters! Marine consignment shop a hit in Key Largo

A voluptuous, pistol-packing mannequin named Pirate Anne Bonny greets customers at Mother Ocean Key Largo, a funky marine consignment store that has found smooth sailing in these rough retail times.

“We opened one year and one week ago with two customers,” co-owner Lysa Benami said. “Now look.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, people and all things nautical – fishing reels, bilge pumps, mermaid bookends, a channel marker light – crowded the 600-square-foot store.

The back door opens to more stuff. Boat motors, water skis, vintage port holes, fish nets, ropes and life preservers are scattered under two large radio-billboard tarps bought on the cheap.

Benami and her husband, Reuven, both in their mid 50s, started Mother Ocean as a semi-retirement project. He installs music systems, and she worked as a CAT-scan technician at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier.

“I retired from the hospital, which I thought would be financial suicide, but I had to take the plunge,” said Lysa Benami, who has a master’s degree in art restoration. “I love being my own boss and meeting interesting people.”

The couple found the perfect place to rent along U.S.1, at mile marker 98.9, and opened on a shoestring budget. They cater to fellow frugal shoppers, the economically challenged and treasure hunters.

They didn’t have to worry about start-up capital.

“My inventory literally walks in the door,” Lysa Benami said. “People bring in one little itty-bitty thing to a truckload.”

The store keeps 25 percent of the sale price. The lone exception is boats, for which their cut is 10 percent.

They have spent just $40 on advertising. Word of mouth, a cardboard sign on the northbound lane and regulars keep the place packed.

Kate Holmes, who has been in the consignment business for 36 years and owns a Sarasota-based consulting business called Too Good to be Threw, said the Benamis’ quick success is no surprise.

“It’s not unusual for consignment shops to outgrow their space in the first year,” Holmes said.

And a slow economy is usually good for the consignment industry. The National Association of Resale Professionals’ most recent member survey found a growth in net sales of 12.7 percent from 2008 to 2009. During the same period, retail sales overall were down 7.3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“People are looking for ways to save money,” said Adele Meyer, executive director of the Michigan-based association.

The nation’s 30,000 consignment shops deal in a wide variety of items including clothing, furniture, tools, equipment, bridal gowns and equestrian equipment, Meyer said. But she doesn’t know of another one that focuses strictly on nautical goods.

For any new business, finding the right niche is critical. And in the Florida Keys, an island chain filled with marinas and waterfront homes where incomes are low and the cost of living is high, a marine consignment shop makes perfect sense.

Ed Sigle, a boater and fishing reel collector, has spent hours browsing through Mother Ocean, never knowing what he is going to find among its ever-changing inventory.

“It’s like a boater’s candy store,” he said.

On this day, Sigle purchased a model brigantine sailboat priced at $80 that he got for $60 after an OK by phone from the consignee.