Our Meet Your Merchant series goes behind the scenes of the Island businesses that keep our rock running. From our hard-working shopkeepers to our friendly tradesmen and service providers, we celebrate all the people our Island depends on.
Cooper “Coop” Gilkes, owner of Coop’s Bait and Tackle, could not be a happier business owner. The fireman turned commercial fisherman turned bait salesman has built Coop’s Bait and Tackle rod by rod, and room by room, over the shop’s 30-plus-year history. He credits his success to the Island, its ideal fishing spots, but most importantly its people. He took some much-coveted time to speak to us in late August, only days away from the upcoming Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
Where are you from?
Martha’s Vineyard, born and raised, a native of Oak Bluffs.
Have you always lived on the Island?
I was here until I was about 11 years old, then my family moved to Laconia, N.H., for my father’s job — he was an executive with the Boy Scouts. I went out of here [the Island] kicking and screaming; I was miserable. Once I got up there, I realized it was a different world and it was fine, but I always wanted to come back home. I lived up there through high school, then went into the fire department. I got married up there and had my kids. Then finally one day I walked in the house and said, “That’s it, we’re going back to Martha’s Vineyard.” I think it was 1971. My family was very familiar with the Island; I still had a lot of extended family here, and we had been back and forth vacationing over the years. My grandparents were here, my aunt and uncle. It was really nice coming home, really nice.
What kind of work were you doing before you opened Coop’s? How did you first get inspired to start the business?
I went into commercial fishing — clamming, eeling, scup, sea bass, quahogs, whatever it took. But I always wanted my own bait and tackle shop. It didn’t look like it was ever going to happen, but I wanted it. I had started selling eels for bait to some of the tackle dealers here, and then I started selling some out of the house.
Eventually we were able to buy a house in Edgartown, and that same property has evolved into what the shop is today. It started with a little shed and then grew, one rod at a time. Originally we had a cutting shed and a tool shed, and one by one each spot was turned into the tackle shop. I’m very proud of it; it’s come a long way.
Was there an obvious need for your business on the Island when you first got started?
I think there was a need but we didn’t know it. But the way we built it, piece by piece, it just took off and it grew. A lot of people have the one shop they frequent. Some people shop around, but a lot of people are loyal to us. We see the same people year after year after year, and meet new people and we see it grow. It’s a win-win situation.
Coop’s is now over 30 years old. What does that mean to you?
We now deal in offshore, fly rods, we offer an array of plugs and lines. We have just about everything. I love the people, it’s unreal. I have my own business here on Martha’s Vineyard, it’s just great. Every day people come in who have been here before, and it’s like being reunited with part of your family. It’s amazing when you have return clientele, you never know what they’re going to bring you. Yesterday we received handmade sausages, unbelievable. It’s so great to meet these people and see them again. We live in a wonderful spot. I feel very, very, lucky to partake in this particular business, and my customers have become extended family.
How has the business evolved over the years?
If I look at my reel cases, I can get really scared at times looking at the prices; equipment has come a long, long way. Sometimes I find it can be difficult to keep up with it, the rods and reels of yesterday and today are like night and day.
To that extent, providing education has become a big part of it, and I love doing it. I really relish someone coming through the doors who has never been fishing. Especially meeting families taking their kids out for the first time. Just this week one of those families came in, and a kid asked me what was with all of the dollar bills we have posted over the door. I explained it was betting money. I told him I would bet his dad that you’re going to catch a fish, catch a scup, or even catch two at one time. He asked, “Really?” His dad agreed, and it was a bet. The kid caught one scup, then a double. And they’ll keep coming back. Having that kind of experience is unbelievable, and they will take that story with them. It’s a lot of fun teaching and watching the rewards come back when people share their stories with me.
What are the most popular items you sell?
Generally rods and reels, spinning rods, we have just about everything for fishing bluewater, tuna, marlin, to catching scup for kids. What’s most popular is what’s going on at the time. If albacores are running it’s about them, if it’s stripers it’s a different game.
We also have a nice line of shellfishing rakes and baskets. Clamming is really big. I’m on the Edgartown shellfish committee, and that group is doing so much for this town, it’s mind-boggling.
You offer fishing charters too;, how does that work?
We offer shore and boat charters. I personally do a lot of chartering. I have more fun watching people catch fish then when I’m catching fish. The hot thing right now is sharking. I took a family from New York out last week to Wasque, and they caught a 150-pound shark. I had more fun watching this family fight this fish for an hour, get it to shore, take pictures, and release it.
During the Derby our shore charters will get really busy. People will book a charter in the beginning of their trip; we’ll take them out, and then they’ll know where to go.
Coop’s is a family-run business. Who does that include?
My son Dan helps run the boat charters. My wife Lela is the boss. She takes care of the books, and everything else; without her I would be lost. My daughter Tina helps me in the shop as well.
When did you first start fishing?
My grandmother would say I was born with a hook and a line in my hand. I remember going to the Oak Bluffs jetty and fishing with my cousin, we were just little kids, maybe 8 or 9. Then we graduated to the Steamship dock — at that time it was huge and we could fish off of it. Once we were handlining there, fishing on a rock, and a huge lobster came crawling out. We had some bait and fed it to the lobster, and finally tangled him enough to contain him. We brought him home and my stepfather cooked him in a galvanized washtub, he was that big. I still claim to have caught the biggest lobster that ever came off that jetty.
What are some of your favorite or most memorable fishing spots? How have they changed over the years?
Well, the Island has changed. When I was a kid one of my favorite spots was always Big Bridge, Jaws Bridge. My grandmother would take me down there at night and drop me off, and not pick me up until the morning. It was funny; in those days, you could sit all night long and you’d never see a car. Now you might see one every few minutes. We still go down there every once in a while; we’ve had some awesome times on that bridge.
Some other good spots are Wasque, Cape Pogue, Squibnocket, Gay Head, Menemsha channel. There are some real phenomenal spots, everyone that goes fishing has a good chance. We are in an exceptional, exceptional piece of real estate. We have beautiful sunsets too.
What does the upcoming Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby mean for you?
A lot of people will come in for the Derby, and they get very competitive, and many others will come down just to have a good time. It means a lot of old family coming through the door and catching up. I’ve been on the Derby committee for many years, and I do some work with the kids during Kids Day — that to me is the pick of the Derby. I can have a great Derby, but when Mike Cassidy and I walk the kids down the pier, it’s an unbelievable experience, I look forward to it every year.
I can still remember fishing the Derby with my kids. We’d walk over on to Squibnocket or Gay Head and climb the dunes. They’d fall asleep while fishing, and I’d have to lug them back to the truck. I’ve had a lot of fun, a lot of good times.
What have been some of your most challenging experiences at Coop’s Bait and Tackle?
I started as as a commercial fisherman, so business is not my strong suit. I’ve had a lot of people over the years help me: I could name names for an hour. And to those people I just want to say thank you. It’s been a challenge over the years, but it’s turned out really, really, good, and we have a blast. To be on Martha’s Vineyard and have a business like this is very rewarding.
What do you expect for the future of the business?
As far as growing, I’ve grown as far as I want to go; if my son wants to take over and keep going, God bless him, but not me. We’re having a ball right now, it’s absolutely unreal, just unbelievable. It’s a piece of pie from heaven, and it wouldn’t be without the people.