By Doreen Leggett
At 6’4”, Nick Nickerson has to duck when he opens the door to the studio of his Chatham Coastal Creations business, tucked by the Little League fields behind the Harwich Cultural Center.
Nickerson smiles as he introduces himself and explains he was running a bit late because he’d just got off the phone with a woman from Hopkinton; she wanted one of those scallop shell mirrors she had seen at a friend’s house in New Seabury, Mashpee.
“She wants a medium oval one,” Nickerson said, scanning the walls.
Mirrors launched his business almost a decade ago and during the winter that’s still what he spends much of his time doing. About three years ago he branched into scallop shell ornaments, building a growing fan base at festivals and in stores.
Amanda Converse, of Love Live Local, says they have happily worked with Nickerson for years.
“I just love the whole concept, people really connect to it,” she said. “He has created this whole second life, or third or fourth. The story is so cool because he was a local fisherman and he had to pivot his whole career. Talk about resilient.”
Nickerson, who was born in 1947, was a teacher and then commercial fisherman, but in 2008 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and given six months to live.
“So I started fooling around with shells. It occupied my mind, so to speak,” he said. Then to his surprise, “the mirror thing really took off.”
First he used bay scallop shells, and made them into wreaths. Later, someone asked him to put a mirror in it and he switched to sea scallops. By then the intensive treatments he received to fight the cancer had worked.
And he just kept going.
“I’ve been as busy as hell. Of course, last year everyone was redecorating,” Nickerson said.
He walked over to a table that had some scallop shells lined up, and behind them were dozens of white scallop shell ornaments. He held up a snow-white smooth shell, far different than how they come out of the sea:
“That takes a lot of work. These are handled at least 20 times before they go in the box.”
He gets his raw materials from Mark and Cam Smith, father and son fishermen who captain fishing vessels named Godzilla and My Three Sons.
Nickerson says he gets about 300 or 400 shells at a time and it’s a good thing the fishery is sustainable because the ornaments are even more popular than the mirrors.
He started with nine designs, including a quintessential outline of Cape Cod, and now has more than 60. People make requests – golfer, pot leaf — and he adds them to the collection.
The ornaments were in close to 70 stores from Maine to New Jersey, but when COVID arrived that number was cut in half. Still, he said, sales went up.
Nickerson settled on the ornament idea one day while looking at his son-in-law Jim Beebe’s (B&B Woodworks) products, where a profile of the Cape graces cutting and cribbage boards.
He asked Beebe if he could cut the Cape on a shell and Beebe tried, but the scroll saw took about 20 minutes and ended up breaking a blade.
“That night I laid in bed and thought, ‘I wonder if we could find a water laser jet,’” Nickerson remembers.
The next morning he started researching and found five companies who could do the job; three didn’t want to talk to him and one off-Cape couldn’t get the quality he wanted.
“The detail was lousy and I am kind of anal about detail,” he said.
Then he talked to Richard Hersey at the Hersey Clutch Company in Orleans and his machinery worked perfectly.
“It’s all done in one cut,” Nickerson beamed. “Every one is done individually.”
“It’s crazy,” he said. “For 50 years we have been throwing these things overboard.”
Before they get to Hersey, the shells go through quite a process, which starts with unevenness being ground away.
Then the shells are thrown in bleach. Next up is a special mix to make them whiter, some shaping on a wet tile saw, then to a wet belt sander to get a finished edge.
His two daughters come in and help with the packing and books. Nickerson needs it; he just got an order for close to 235 for wedding favors.
The studio at the Harwich Cultural Center is a perfect base for packaging and appointments. Remnants of his former life hang around the trailer.
Although he fished as a kid, he didn’t know that would be his career path. He went to college to be a physical education teacher, on full scholarship to East Tennessee State because of his basketball skills.
He came back to Chatham and taught at Dennis Yarmouth High School for seven years, on the verge of getting his master’s degree when he had a financial epiphany.
He went fishing one weekend and made as much money as he would in a year teaching. So he switched careers. Along with scalloping he went shellfishing, cod fishing, lobstering and potting for sea bass and conchs. He spent three years in St. Maarten’s catching spiny lobsters before coming home to raise a family. He also spent a lot of time tuna fishing.
“I used to chase tuna fish all over the world,” he said. “Greece, the Azores. I saw the best of it. I was very fortunate to come along when I did.”
He was part of the Cape Quality Bluefin cooperative in the 1990s, when a few Cape fishermen joined together to get a better price. One week in 1991 he grossed $311,000 with 27 fish.
“That was the craziest thing I have ever seen and done,” he said. “Tuna fishing was fun. To this day I still get Christmas cards from some people I took out tuna fishing.”
After years in fishing he sold his permits to buy back and redo his dad Willard’s fish market on the Chatham pier, Nickerson’s Fish and Lobster (now Chatham Fish Pier Market).
He got cancer not long after he sold it, but he landed on his feet, grateful, and going out of his way to help others.
He tells the story of an artist friend who wanted to buy some shells and he gave her some, saying Merry Christmas. She hand-painted hydrangeas, a lavender spray and other images on them and he brought them to local shops where they took off. Nickerson did the same with three-dimensional art the 94-year-old mother of one of his clients creates on the scallop shells.
“He is a really great spirit. We are lucky to have him,” said Amanda Converse. “This is what makes this place so special, the people.”