How to sell fish for nearly a lifetime.
HAMPTON BAYS—The parking lot will be crowded, though the view is beautiful. The floor inside is wet, and it’s best to hug the wall because it’s easy to get hit by flying fish scales as a con- tinuous line of flounder makes its way past a man in a large indus- trial-strength apron with a razor-sharp filet knife. He tosses what’s left of the fish in a crate on the floor not far from your feet. The line of customers here is long, sometimes out the door, but every- one’s willing to wait. It’s Cor-J Seafood Market at the southern foot of the Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays.
The wall you’re hugging has displays lined with white crushed ice that contrasts with the shocking pink of red snapper, the silver,blue-gray of striped bass and the deep red-black of tuna, each with prices writ on scallop shells. Smell the sea, consider buying seaweed salad or fresh octopus and wait your turn. Dinner’s on its way.
There is something special about buying fish from a market on the water. And here it’s the great expanse of the Shinnecock Bay, shimmering and protected from the ocean by the barrier beach on the other side of Dune Road. It’s so large that Jet Skis look like dots, and so productive that in any season someone is plumbing its shallow depths for a cash crop, be it razor clams or bay scallops.
From his second-story office Jimmy Coronesi, Cor-J’s owner, has a great view of the bay looking westward. But you won’t find him up there very often, even to look out the window in his standard uniform of a red Greek fisherman’s cap and Herkules waders. For one thing, it’s hot—there’s no air conditioning, and outside his door, compressors for ice machines and walk-in refrigerators are constantly pumping—for another thing, he can’t leave the store for that long.
“I gotta go,” he says. “They’re cranking down there.”
Coronesi has owned the fish market since 1979, when he took it over from Smitty, who only sold lobsters (it was called Smitty’s Lobster House). “In those days everything was summer,” says Coronesi. “It was all over in winter. When I bought it, it was just a room full of lobster tanks.”
This came after a lifetime in the business. Coronesi worked his way up from a clam digger at 16 years old in Oyster Bay, where he grew up, to owner of his own shop. The progression included a stint in Alaska, fishing for halibut and salmon, and a time in the once-thriving Long Island oyster business with Flower & Sons in Oyster Bay and the now-defunct Long Island Oyster Farm in East Marion—“The brown tide took care of that.”
By the time he got into lobsters, the site on Lighthouse Road was available for a good price. Soon he was able to buy the lot next door for more parking.
Working with Coronesi now are his two sons, Louis and Daniel, who help him with the retail operation and making deliveries. “We peddle to the west two times per week,” says Coronesi, “making deliveries to the Bronx, Manhattan and Chinatown. On the way back we deliver to stores, like Wild by Nature.” In Chinatown, Coronesi finds customers that appreciate his attention to selling whole fish, which also draws an ethnic clientele in Hampton Bays. Coronesi says the evolution of people’s tastes has definitely impacted his business. “It used to be flounder, flounder, flounder,” he says. Now people come in asking for porgies and whiting. He’s weathered the su- shi craze, which continues. When he started, no one ate raw fish. Now no respectable fish market wouldn’t carry wasabi and pickled ginger. He has a market for eels, and the sweet Maine shrimp, known as “ebi,” sell out when they come through in December. For himself, he eats fish every day, his favorites being shrimp and sole. In the winter he stays at his place in the Florida Keys, but long ago sold his fishing boat.
The business has grown to include another retail outlet in Westhampton Beach, also called Cor-J, where more prepared foods are available, and Tully’s, down the street from the original store, which was in the hands of Coronesi’s best customer for de- cades. Tully’s is a restaurant and also sells prepared dishes to go.
His wife works in the assessor’s office in Southampton Town, and retirement might not be that far away. “When I was 16, I could make more than a school teacher,” he says. “In 1961, a teacher made $5,500 per year. I know this because the Oyster Bay Chronicle did a story. At the time everyone was mad at teachers. But those days are gone.” He now deals with high overhead and health insurance. “Somebody gets sick, you got problems,” he says. “When my first child was born it cost me $750. That was a lot of money then, but the world didn’t come to an end. Today it costs $10,000, if not more.”
And even as Cor-J now counts a strong year-round base of devoted customers, he worries about providing for his 15 employees and the ultimate perishability of his product.
“It’s a very intense business,” he says. “Either you’re in it or you’re not in it. The fish, it’s not going to get better tomorrow.”