A year after the tornado, Earp's Seafood Market rebounds | Food Feature | Indy Week

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A year after the tornado, Earp's Seafood Market rebounds

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One afternoon about a year ago, customers who were shopping at their neighborhood fishmonger, Earp's Seafood Market, scrambled into a back room and huddled under sinks.

On April 16, 2011, a tornado tore through Raleigh and in seconds gutted the 42-year-old building on South Saunders Street, leaving only three walls intact. After nearly 10 months of being closed—the owners citing insurance battles and city code regulations for the delay—Earp's Seafood finally reopened in late January as a refurbished landmark.

"It's brighter, bigger, new, and it is beautiful," says 65-year-old Nancy Earp Salmon, daughter of the late Herbert Earp and his wife, Mary, now 86. "Mama was really overwhelmed. She just couldn't picture it was going to look like this. She is very proud. A part of my mom and dad is still here."

Herbert Earp opened his seafood market on Maywood Avenue in 1968 with just $50. The Earps relocated to South Saunders Street in 1970. The market is endowed with a quirky familial history. If those three walls that survived the tornado could talk, they would tell you about Herbert's first cousin, Wilbur.

Wilbur built the shop himself on his days off from his regular job, taking breaks only to throw back a couple of beers. He discarded the cans of Bud Light in the holes of the cinder blocks, he told the family. They never quite believed him until, after the tornado, they found the cans. One wall still contains Wilbur's memory.

The new interior beams a bright, clean white. Meaty grouper, whole tilapia, pecks of oysters and piles of shrimp are displayed in heaps. David Salmon, Nancy's husband and the market's manager, says 90 percent of their products come from the North Carolina coast, delivered four times a week. You won't find much frozen beyond the handmade crab cakes and Louisiana alligator meat. The fish is filleted or cleaned to order, then suited up in a plastic bag, wrapped the old-fashioned way—with newsprint—and fastened with a smile. Fat bags of seasoning, breading and hush puppy mixes line the shelves. North Carolina brands Moss, Sweet Betsy and Atkinson's round out the selection, sharing the space with slim bottles of tartar and cocktail sauces. After Earp's reopened, Atkinson's donated its product for three months to help the Salmons get through the costs of rebuilding.

Before opening the seafood market, Herbert worked at Dr. Pepper Bottling Company; Mary, in a factory. She lost some of her fingers in a machinery accident, receiving $5,000, with which she and Herbert bought their house in Oakwood.

Nancy says her father wanted to be a neighborhood seafood peddler, like the fresh vegetable peddlers—her grandfather among them—that came through their neighborhood. Finally, when Nancy was in her 20s, the Earps bought the market. Mary learned to swiftly work the cash register with just her left hand.

Earp died due to heart complications at 52, although he did attend Nancy's wedding and the serendipitous name change that came with the union.

"When I married David, Daddy said, 'I didn't gain a son-in-law. I gained another type of fish!'"

After Herbert's death, Mary took control of the market and worked there until she was 81. At the grand reopening, Nancy refused to invite a public figure to cut the ribbon. She insisted her mother do the honors.

"I don't see the importance of having some big shot standing out there, 'cause my mama was a big shot," she says. "My parents are Earp's Seafood. My parents are to be honored because they're the ones that worked to [build] what this is today."

While waiting for his order—flounder filets, perch and shrimp—customer Glenn Taylor sits on the bench inside the market. I ask him if he's been shopping at Earp's for a while. "How long have they been around?" he asks. I tell him 43 years. "Well, then 43 years."

Taylor, 47, grew up in Garner, tagging along with his grandmother to shop for fresh flounder and sitting by the oven as she baked the fish with lemon and potatoes. A deep-sea fishing hobbyist, Taylor drives to Earp's every week from Hillsborough, where he lives, to purchase flounder for his family, and at least one new fish to add to their repertoire.

"They talk to me and know what I like," he says of the folks at Earp's. "There's nowhere else like it. Even if they were to go up a little bit [in price], I'd still get it here. It is always fresh."

Nancy has the same oval face as her mother, framed by kind blue eyes and a broad smile that accompanies a hearty chuckle. Mary was hospitalized last month, and customers continue to ask about her. Customers ask about Nancy, too, who worked at the shop for 15 years before she went into anaphylactic shock and discovered she is allergic to shellfish.

"They had me tagged for the morgue. I probably didn't eat a lot of shellfish, 'cause we couldn't afford it. Maybe that's what happened. When we got to where we could get some free, I overdid it!" she laughs.

Since the market reopened this year, business has almost tripled, David says.

"Fridays and Saturdays are dias matadores [killer days]," says Manolo Ruiz Navarrete, an employee at the market. "The line is sometimes out the door. You should see me then, I'm running around like Speedy Gonzales."

When the shop was closed, Mary continued to pay all her employees. Julio Valencia has been working for the Earps for 14 years. "I'm really happy here," he says. "It really is like working for family."

A Mexican immigrant, Valencia prides himself on how much he's learned about seafood at Earp's. "You can say that it's like the center of the world here," he says. "We meet Chinese customers, Arabs, Japanese, African-Americans, Italians. They come in happy and they leave happier. They tell us, 'Thank you for being here so long, and helping us learn more about the seafood.'"

He warns customers of small bones and shares recipes for stews—although he says everything tastes perfect with a little Valentina hot sauce and lime.

Although Nancy was raised poor, she thought she was wealthy, she says, "because that's the kind of family and life I had. I had that love. And if you've got love, you've got wealth. That's what this market has been—full of love. I pray that it would continue on and on until it's 100 years old."

This article appeared in print with the headline "There's no place like home."

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