(Photograph by Josh Campbell)

Clawing back

When the beloved James Hook & Co. went up in flames six months ago, everybody assumed the famous 83-year-old Bostonlobster business would be back one day. And it is. But for how long is another question.

By Michael Fitzgerald
December 14, 2008
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When the phone rang at Jimmy Hook's house at 3 in the morning, there was no reason to think it was the end of anything other than another night's sleep for the Hook family. The phone had been interrupting their sleep for a while now -- false alarms from a flaw in the system that monitored the family-owned lobster business that's been a fixture in downtown Boston since 1925. ¡ The owners -- three Hook brothers and their sister, Nancy Doto -- could and did handle almost everything for James Hook & Co., which is why Jimmy was giving his brother Al a night off after the spate of false alarms. Still, when another call came right away, before Jimmy had even finished getting dressed, he called Al.

"Al, the shop's on fire," Jimmy said.

"Well, how bad is it?"

"The whole thing," Jimmy said, his voice rising.

Al grimaced. Of the three Hook brothers, he's the most even-keeled. (Jimmy is the most emotional; Eddie is the politician.) Al got dressed for work, figuring on a long couple of cleanups in the days ahead.

At 3:30 in the morning, it took less than 20 minutes to get his Escalade from Lynnfield to the corner of Northern and Atlantic avenues in downtown Boston. Al's wife, Suzanne, always comes on the alarm checks. Though Al has the thick hands and body that come from years of shoving around 150-pound crates of lobster, Suzanne's never liked him going on these runs by himself. By Somerville, they could see smoke. Al turned to his wife: "This doesn't look good."

Exit 23 was closed, so Al got off early and took the Surface Road. When he arrived, it seemed as if every firetruck in Boston was surrounding their business. Al got out of his car and walked over to Jimmy. Al hugged him quickly, then snuck over to Northern Avenue and peeked at the retail side of the operation. The second floor had collapsed; the business was in ruins.

To the siblings, it was almost inconceivable that their business was going up in flames -- yes, the buildings were wooden, but a big chunk of the operation was built out over Fort Point Channel, and under the old-fashioned corrugated-metal roofs were row after row of lobster tanks. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water flowed through the buildings. Plus, there was a fire station just a couple of blocks away.

The lobster business mixes hard physical labor with a commodities market that changes every day; the phone lines are the trading floor. You need endurance, street smarts, the ability to crack wise one second and crack down the next. But this was different -- the business was the livelihood for three generations of the Hook family. It had been there through the Depression, wars, recessions, marriages, divorce, births, deaths. And now it was collapsing in front of them. "It was like losing a member of the family," Jimmy says.

In fact, their father, Edward Hook, had died in an accident in the building in 1960. Nancy was 6, Eddie 4, and Jimmy 2; Al was in his mother's womb. Their grandfather, James, had begun the business 35 years before that, and with their father, Edward, and their uncles, Jimmy and Alfred, had hauled lobster and clams from Maine and Canada to Boston daily. And now, 48 years after their father had died, it was collapsing into Boston Harbor.

All the family could do was watch and vow to rebuild. In the days after the seven-alarm fire, there was an outpouring of support. Robert Nagle, part of another multi-generational seafood company, John Nagle Co., came down that morning and offered them space in his offices about a mile down Seaport Boulevard. A longtime friend and customer, Al Minahan, brought them food and rented a room for them down the street at the Boston Harbor Hotel, so they could have a place to disappear to if they needed it. Mayor Tom Menino made calls to city agencies to make sure they helped the Hooks, smoothing permitting processes and offering them space to work.

And they would need space. Their shop had burned down during one of the busiest times of the year in the lobster business. They had an order for 500 2-pound lobsters they needed to fill for Sunday, and just because the building was gone didn't have to mean their business was, too. They had trucks coming in that would need a place to unload. A rival, P.J. Lobster Co., called to offer them a tank for their lobsters. That was where they wound up, and it allowed the family to think the business would survive.

"We'll be back," Jimmy Hook told the Globe the morning after the fire.

Incredibly, James Hook & Co. only stopped operating for one day -- May 30, the Friday that everything went up in flames. It was running again by the weekend, even filling that major order on Sunday, a testament as much to the family's perseverance as to the neighbors, competitors, customers, and city workers who recognized the importance of the lobster institution to the city's well-being.

As summer rolled in, the initial plan was to more or less rebuild the way it was. Of course, it couldn't be exactly the same. The old James Hook & Co. had been filled with photographs and live lobsters and buoys with "James Hook & Co. Maine Lobster" on them -- the assembled memories of a place beloved. All of that had vanished in the fire -- the only thing salvaged was the 5-foot-long lobster weather vane. "It won't be the same. It won't be our old friend," Nancy had said.

But something like the small complex of buildings that had been their business was what Al was asking architects to design and contractors to bid on. He hoped it could be up and running by Christmas, in time for the family's annual Christmas Eve dinner at their mother's house, where she makes, of course, Lobster Newberg.

The Hooks weren't alone in wanting to see it come back in something like its old form. Customers and suppliers would call or find the Hooks in their temporary space down on Seaport Boulevard, and they'd have a story about how their fathers had brought them into the place on Northern Avenue when they were kids. Inevitably, they'd ask, "What are you going to do?" The answer: "We'll be back."

And why not? As Al says: "You got people my age" -- he's 48 -- "whose grandfather used to take them here. It makes you feel great, proud, happy" to get that kind of support. A lot of people want it back the way it was. Menino's eyes light up when talks about the place: "It's a landmark -- for the last 50 years, you drive by and you see Hook Lobster."

It stood out as one of the last unpretentious places in a neighborhood that had undergone a radical makeover in recent years, and it also hearkened back to Boston's seafaring past. Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association, would take school groups on tours through Hook and leave them with this message: "This is why you don't spit in the Fort Point Channel or throw things in it."

James Hook & Co. was a kind of functioning commercial museum. Al says it hadn't changed much since he was a kid and his Uncle Jimmy would pack the crew into his Jeep Wagoneer on Saturdays and bring them to Boston for some ice cream and an afternoon in the shop. Orders still get scribbled out on scratch pads, for "chickens" (1-pound lobsters), "quarters" (a pound and a quarter), and "halves" (1½ pounds). Asked why they didn't use computers for the wholesale orders, John Mazurkiewicz, a Hook cousin who's been with the business for 32 years, held up a fistful of slips. "I got my database right here."

While things hadn't changed much at the corner of Northern and Atlantic avenues, from 1980 to 2000 Boston matured from "an aging industrial town to a successful city of the information age," says Ed Glaesar, director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. That brought skyrocketing residential prices and commercial real estate values. Lots that had been vacant since Al and his siblings were kids started sprouting buildings -- the Boston Harbor Hotel opened in 1987, the vacant lot across Seaport Boulevard became offices, and the Intercontinental Hotel and condos opened in 2006.

After the fire and without their home base, the Hooks had to work harder than they had in years. While they were grateful to have space from P.J.'s and the Nagles, it presented unprecedented challenges. They used to yell down the hall for Nancy or their younger brother John Mulkerrin, who kept the books. Now, those two were in Nagles, and it took a phone call or a walk down the block.

Plus, they had been able to store up to 250,000 pounds of lobster in their old place, in tiered rows of tanks that were basically half a 55-gallon drum on legs. They drew water in from Fort Point Channel and ran it through the tanks and back out, in what's called an open system. The lobsters sat in the rows of tanks, at the ready.

The pool at P.J. Lobster is what's called a closed system, where the lobsters are kept in plastic bins with recirculating saltwater. It's more modern, more efficient. But every day every bin has to be hauled up, the lobsters examined, and sick ones culled, a time-consuming process that often sees Eddie or Al alongside their workers, shoving around bins with up to 150 pounds of lobster in each.

In their original site, Al or Eddie or Jimmy could oversee both the wholesale and retail operations more or less alone. One of them would come in from 7 a.m. to noon, one from noon until 5 p.m. Each worked every third weekend. Now they were all there, all the time, constantly on the phone, rarely escaping for lunch or even coffee breaks. And when they did get home, the phones kept ringing -- a lawyer, a contractor, a developer, someone helping them restore their business.

In mid-July, they got another gift: a new, temporary building donated by Triumph Modular of Littleton. That let them reopen a retail operation in mid-August at their old corner of Atlantic and Northern. They even have a few tanks in there, with the water running in and out from the channel again. "It makes it feel like we're back," Al said, though he's still over at the wholesale operation at P.J.'s.

One day a man walked in with a slender box. "I took this the night before the fire," he said, and he pulled out a big glossy print of the weather vane, gleaming in the late-afternoon sun. He gave the photo to Nancy. "I like this place," he told her. "I like driving by and seeing it on the way home."

Nancy took him outside to show him where the actual weather vane -- now dented and not so shiny -- stood, next to the steps. "I hope you get it back up there," he said, looking toward the roof.One day in August, AL, in his gravelly voice, groused about the architectural plans he was getting: "These people give us proposals with all their ideas in it. We just want it back like it was."

But developers envisioned something more grand. They would drop off proposal books showing a glass tower on part of the lot, with a smaller version of James Hook & Co. on the back half. The property, though small, is worth a fortune. Quotes for rebuilding it the way it was were also coming in; the Hooks won't say how much money is involved, other than to note their insurance won't cover it all. That would mean borrowing money at a time when it's not exactly easy to get a loan. And none of them -- the Hook siblings range in age from 48 to 54 -- want to go into debt at this stage of their lives.

That's because it's unclear whether there will be a fourth generation of Hooks in place to carry on.

While Nancy's sons have both worked at the company, Michael, 27, has shown lukewarm interest, at best. Her younger son, Alex, spends his summer breaks from college working there but says he wants to be a police officer. Eddie's kids aren't involved in the business, and Jimmy's are still teenagers. Al doesn't have kids.

So, with that uncertainty looming, the Hooks face a question: Does it still make sense to borrow big money and rebuild if, a decade later, the business will be sold off to some developer anyway? Or do they sell now and become a tenant in whatever a developer can get through the Boston Redevelopment Authority?

"We may not be going it alone," Al said in early October. "We want to rebuild in our hearts, but we have to listen to our heads, too."

But their heads are filled with conflicting voices. Selling to a developer could mean their wholesale business remains somewhere else. They also wouldn't get much say in their space -- it's likely nobody would see "James Hook" from the highway anymore.

Then there's city politics. The Hooks mostly keep out of politics. Li, of the Boston Harbor Association, remembers that during the entire process of planning the South Boston Waterfront, including the Fan Pier development, the Hook family did not ask for more space or try to capitalize on the development rush by pushing for condos on top of their building. "They just went about doing their business," Li says.

As for rebuilding, Menino says the Hooks could go bigger -- "it's their money and their life." But he also says "it can't be reflective glass; it has to fit the character of the waterfront." The hope is that the Hooks will build something that ties in with the plans for renovating the Northern Avenue Bridge. The city is open to something besides James Hook & Co. the way it was, says Richard McGuinness, Boston's deputy director of waterfront planning, pointing as an example to the plans for developing the Jimmy's Harborside Restaurant plot. But it's unlikely that just another condo tower would get a free pass.

One thing that isn't a factor, the Hooks say, is the crumbling economy. The questions for them revolve around emotion, tradition, a way of life. "No decisions have been made," says Al.

All he knows for sure is that, one way or another, James Hook & Co. will still be selling lobsters at the corner of Northern and Atlantic avenues come Christmas. And that their mother's Lobster Newburg will taste as sweet as ever.

Michael Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in Millis. E-mail him at

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