He Sells Seashells at the Seashore

He Sells Seashells at the Seashore

John Haney got into the business as a teen, and now has two shops offering tourist souvenirs and materials for craft projects.

December 19, 2005|Mai Tran | LA Times Staff Writer

If you can hold it up to your ear and hear the ocean, most likely John Haney has it.

Haney owns Seal Beach's California Seashell Co., one of the oldest shops on Main Street.

The store carries more than 400 types of seashells from all over the world. They adorn mirrors, necklaces, picture frames, wind chimes and other craft items.

"We thought it was a good idea, because tourists want to take home an ornament from the town they're visiting. It's a memory of their vacation," said Haney, 44.

Haney was 14 when he first learned about the commercial potential of seashells. He and a business partner shared a booth at the Orange County Swap Meet in Costa Mesa. Haney sold rocks and minerals. His partner sold seashells.

When the partner fell ill two years later, Haney bought the business for $1,500, he said.

Haney eventually expanded to two booths at the swap meet. In 1982, he met Larry Condo, another shell trader. Condo's Rock and Shell Shop had been on Seal Beach's Main Street since the 1950s.

The two began a partnership and started importing shells from Asia. Condo died in 1992. Haney bought Condo's store and renamed it the California Seashell Co.

Haney's business has expanded to a shop on Balboa Island and a wholesale warehouse in Huntington Beach, the city where he lives.

The Seal Beach store is about 100 yards from the shore. The front is blue, with fish and corals, giving it an aquarium look.

Inside, cramped aisles are lined with bins of sugar starfish from Baja California and green sea urchins from the Philippines.

The store is a tourist attraction but also popular with locals.

Grandparents bring grandchildren to explore the shop, and crafts enthusiasts search for raw materials.

"It's really cool, because you can't find some of these things on this side of the ocean," said Jessica Miller, 48, of West Covina. She was picking out tiny pearly shells to make necklaces and bracelets for Christmas gifts.

Haney imports his shells mainly from Asia. They are cleaned in chlorine, packed and shipped here, he said.

"They eat the meat and send us the shells," said Haney, who, despite his trade, is more partial to collecting Santa Claus figurines.

In fact, nobody in his family collects shells, Haney said. Daughters Meghan, 11, and Madison, 6, like bear and snowman ornaments, and his wife, Lisa, 41, likes angels.

But seashells are the family business. Lisa helps make the ornaments and other craft items sold in the shop.

Half the seashells Haney imports are sold in California, he said, and the rest are shipped to stores in Hawaii, Florida and other coastal states.

Erica Bender, 18, said she visited the store often to buy inexpensive and unique gifts. Shells sell for as little as a dime.

The Orange resident bought a picture frame, a wind chime and a necklace as Christmas gifts for a friend in Oklahoma recently.

"Shells are nice to find on the beach," Benders said, "but they are much cleaner here."