Tom Robinson, Iconic Carrboro Fishmonger

February 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm 20 comments

A tribute to the longtime owner of Tom Robinson’s Seafood Market, who died Friday. By friend George “Jake” Horwitz:

Thomas Marshall Robinson, Jr., November 11, 1951 – February 19, 2010

If you asked one person who knew Tom Robinson for more than five minutes what was most striking about the man, you might reasonably expect six answers, each in conflict with the other five. When Tom wasn’t outraged by stupidity (which was usually), he laughed about it. He laughed more than most people, and most people, if they had any sense, joined in with him. His original charm was nearly irresistible, unless he happened to grossly offend you. Which was known to happen: Democrats, for some reason, don’t like to be mentioned as ‘feckless idiots’ any more than Republicans care for the sound of ‘sleazy morons.’ Tom loved the idea of states’ rights, but thought ‘Tea-baggers should be euthanized.’

He’d earned a degree in botany at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1975, and then traveled abroad to study in Norway . He then came home and turned his attention to selling fruit and vegetables on Rosemary Street . He switched to seafood, spent most Wednesdays driving his truck around New Hanover and Carteret counties, assessing and buying fishes, oysters, shrimp, scallops, crabs, and other tasty delectations from watermen, merchants, and assorted scoundrels along the coast. (He confided in me and about ten other people one vinous evening that Wilmington was ‘the evilest city in Christendom.’) He liked most of them, of course, but was unsparing in his disdain for their short-sightedness. (‘If you kill all the damn fish and catch the rest, then there won’t be any fish. And you won’t have any to sell. They don’t understand that.’)

Some time in the ‘eighties he sold the fish market and went back to Norway to study boat building. At the end of this splendid adventure, he came home because the people who’d bought the market from him had not followed his instructions and consequently went broke. He was seldom imprecise when instructing others how a job must best be done. His sweetheart of seventeen years Kay Hamrick recalls his telling a new employee how to scour the inside of a fish box (“Use a circular motion, going slowly in a clockwise motion…”) He had no opinion of failure to follow simple instructions.

He collected stuff wherever he went. Norway , Denmark , France , Canada , New York . Whisky, firearms, magazines, financial records, tools, books, knives, racing pigeons, boat designs, oyster shells, cooking stuff. He had plans for each of these, just not enough time to get it all done. His little sister Jane recalls Tom as a small child running out of their house in Wilmington, dressed in his bathrobe, grabbing a hoe, dashing to the garden, muttering boyish curses, “complaining that he’d slept late, and was already way behind.” Years later, we planted cypress trees at his farm in Chatham County , so Tom could have timber for the boat he was going to build. Some evenings Tom came to our cabin on the Haw River , and he drove over in his delivery truck; every cat in Bynum scampered across that bridge following the bodacious smell. “We’ll have supper outside, in the moonlight” he said, “among the sacred groves.” We talked about sailing, Leif Erikson, Magellan, Chinese junks, “the French and their food,” the advantages of the single-action Colt, the excellence of Southern generals in the War between the States, and, inevitably, the burgeoning presence of the Mafia in Wilmington.

Although the house he shared with Kay is loaded with boxes full of stuff, and the farm he owned is littered with old cars and trucks packed tight with Tom’s things, none of that is anything compared with the information and plans he squirreled away in his head. ‘I suppose you knew that more soldiers from North Carolina died defending Virginia than from any other Confederate state, including Virginia . But do you have any idea how many Black soldiers fell defending Wilmington ?’ And everything he knew, he staunchly defended with a strong opinion, whether it was the inferiority of John Jameson’s whisky (“Fine stuff if you enjoy the taste of kerosene.”) to the grace and power of the works of Edvard Grieg. His favorite comic strips were The Phantom and Prince Valiant. His demented support for the Tarheel basketball program absolutely eclipsed rationality. He loved playing with his dogs, racing his numerous pigeons, and fighting with the tax people in Wilmington (“Because they’re wrong.”) When Harvey Gantt ran against Jesse Helms for the senate, Tom gave Mr. Gantt a benefit fish-fry in the yard next to his market. It was a pretty day and we had fun.

Tom got cancer eleven years ago, endured the indignities of chemo-therapy, felt tired sometimes, scarcely slowed down, and seemed to get better. But cancer has a way of coming back, and his did. More chemo last year, then H1N1 influenza, and then pneumonia. Some of the last things he said in the hospital were orders for the fish market and telling Kay to keep after those incompetent crooks in the Wilmington tax office. He hung on with the respirator for days and days, and oftentimes we thought he would ride it out. His adored Kay sat down beside him for the long siege; my wife Kathy Armacost and I had the privilege of joining them. He never got to build his boat, but they tell me he’s sailing now, under a cloud of sleek racing pigeons, smart wind at his back, getting the feel of it. Sometime, I hope, he’ll take us for a ride.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m.  on Sunday March 7 at Walker’s Funeral Home in Chapel Hill, 919.942.3861.  Online condolences may be sent to Photo from North Carolina Travels, Carrboro.

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20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Rees  |  February 24, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    This is indeed sad news. His shop was the go to place for quality seafood for as long as I remember.

    I recall how nice he was to my children when I’d take them into the shop. If he wasn’t busy, he’d tell them all about the various fish and let them hold the crabs. What a truly great guy.

  • 2. edibleearthscape  |  February 24, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    I am really shocked to hear this news. My sincere condolences go out to his family. I had the privilege of buying fresh seafood from him and enjoying conversation with Tom. I know a lot of Japanese families who would go to his shop for fresh cut sashimi.

  • 3. Mesa Pivirotto  |  February 24, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Tom Robinson’s seafood was my first job. The most interesting 8 months of my life. I was really nervous and screwed everything up in the begining, so tom made me wash his cars. He told me I was the only woman that probably didn’t learn from their mother how to clean, and that’s why I was a good cleaner (they use too much soap and do a half ass job). Haha his comments got me through my day. I never told him how much i appreciated working there. I have a huge amount of respect for him. I hope he knew that, even if he was criticizing me with a smile on his face.
    Ill be expecting some homemade fig newtons in the afterlife tom 🙂

  • 4. Muskie Cates  |  February 25, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Thank you Jake. You paint Tom’s picture with deft and knowing strokes. Tom, and his shop, were one of a kind and sure to be missed by all true Chapel Hillians and Piedmont Parisians. Condolences and best wishes to Kay.

  • 5. ayse  |  February 25, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    A beautiful remembrance, Mr. Horwitz. I had the pleasure of being Mr. Robinson’s customer, and his intelligence and passion were apparent. He taught us a great deal about fish and fish-frying in our visits to his shop. What a loss for our community and my deepest condolences to his friends and family.

  • 6. Alex Johnson  |  February 25, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    I worked for Tom off and on in the mid to late ’90’s and will never forget him. He was (mostly) patient, and (always) fair. Everyone who passed through his shop came away with a little bit of him. He wasn’t sparing of himself, or of his opinion on just about any subject you could name.

    Thank you Jake for putting together such moving words that capture him so well. I had the feeling that he somehow wanted to acomplish more in his time here than run a seafood shop, but in doing so with such charm (his own special brand) he certainly touched a lot of people and made many lasting impressions. I’d love to see how all those trees we planted are doing in that horrible chatham clay he so patiently ammended with fish scraps and gypsum. I can still taste his homade aquavit and bogue sound watermellon he kept in the ice machine for the end of those steaming 36hr. weekend shifts.

    He’ll certainly be missed, and his like won’t be seen again anytime soon. My deepest condolences, Kay.

  • 7. john Lindsey  |  February 25, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Thank you Jake
    Thank you Tom
    Thank you Kay

  • 8. John Fox  |  February 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    I live in San Francisco, but I grew up in Chapel Hill. My mom was a loyal customer from the earliest days when he sold fish out of a truck parked in front of a supermarket near Eastgate. I used to love going with her to buy fish and play with the live crabs. I know she’ll be heartbroken to hear the news.

    I make it back to Chapel Hill about once a year. My wife and child and I utterly adored going to his store in Carrborro. There are so few places left on the planet where you can still get clean, wild seafood. Tom’s tireless work made it so easy for us, perhaps too easy, to enjoy these treasures. Long before there was any mainstream talk — to the extent that there now is — of sustainable, local food, Tom was walking the walk.

    And so now, a delightful little corner of the world has lost a beautiful soul. My heart goes out to Tom’s beloved Kay and everyone else who knew and was touched by him.

  • 9. ywng  |  February 27, 2010 at 9:46 am

    Jake, what a wonderful slice of Tom captured in your beautiful, heart felt words. You are a true friend. Yes, I remember his truck, his shed on Rosemary, and so glad to see him back in Carrboro. This community is fortunate to have men of the like of Tom and Jake.

  • 10. Mary Dean BArringer  |  February 27, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    I live down the street from his fish place in carrboro. I had no idea he passed away, and drove by today and saw the always reassuring sign “Fresh Fish”. I learned a lot about Carrboro from Tom. What a sad day. I hope Kay and his family and friend know how much he was loved and how much joy he brought to people. I really learned about FISH!

  • 11. Kay Lund  |  March 1, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    Jake – thanks for a spot on tribute.
    Tom – thanks for all the oysters and good times for our family- we will miss you – oyster roasts and Christmas Eve will not be the same
    Kay – so sorry

    Much love

    Kay, Mark, Emma and Alice

  • 12. J. Matthew Martin  |  March 2, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Hey, Jake, that was sweet. We sure had some fun, didn’t we? I had forgotten about the Harvey Gant fish fry: southern politics and fried mullet. That was the best.

    What a community icon! What a pal.


  • 13. Jennifer Kilgore (Zeman)  |  March 2, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Thank you so much for capturing Tom in such a precise and revealing way. Thank you also for being there by his side. I ache inside to think that he was ill. I never knew.

    I was one of the few females to have the opportunity to work at the market. I’m still not sure what drew me there to apply, but it was one of the best things I have ever done with my life. Tom taught me the rewards of hard work, a good laugh, friendship….I remember the joys of graduating to fish filleter, and floor hoser. Hosing the floor down was more like artwork than real work, if you did it Tom’s way.

    Most of all, I think Tom taught me the about the world in a little rundown cinderblock building.

    Thanks for being a part of my life Tom. A part of my life, I will never say goodbye to.

  • 14. Sabrina Shaffer Colvard  |  March 3, 2010 at 9:14 am

    I worked for Tom on and off in the mid 90’s and learned to love his intelligence, sarcasm, anger and passion for life and fine food. Working for Tom in all the ice needed to keep the fish fresh was at times grueling (especially in winter) but I have fond memories of those days and the camaraderie we shared (Had to look up how to spell that word, though I am sure you would have known it Tom!!) Those Saturday mornings when the farmer’s market was still on Robeson St. were a blast. I developed my fondness for coffee, NPR and homemade pound cake during those days.
    Tom reduced, reused and recycled long before that phrase was hip. There was never waste in his shop. I regrettably lost touch with Tom over the years, though I peaked in the shop the other day and smiled to see that there still wasn’t a computer around. I wonder if Tom still keep track of everything on those little books!
    Thank you Tom for sharing your life with us. Beautiful, beautiful tribute to Tom, Jake. I look forward to seeing you again after so long on Sunday.

  • 15. C.L. Bresky  |  March 4, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    It astounds me that we learn so much about a captivating and unique individual after they leave us…if only we could alter that somehow.
    To my old friend Kay-my heart is full of sadness yet with tenderness also for the love and companionship you shared with Tom.
    With love and friendship,
    Carole Lee

  • 16. mercersmithauction  |  March 4, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    I found a job with Tom when I think, I was twenty -four. I came to Chapel Hill in 1982. I first found him behind the ,then Col. Chutney’s. I followed him to Roberson St. One day, I walked in and a Help Wanted sign was taped to the case. I inquired and somehow began working Saturdays. I felt his passion for what he was doing. I found myself totally intrigued and smitten with seafood. Tom wanted to study boat building and I heard he sold the market. “Blue Sky” was the new name. I worked for them for a bit, continually thinking how he would be judging their performance. I, then branched out and began selling wholesale fish annd eventually went in to help Weaver Street Market set up shop.

    Not long after, “Blue Sky” went under and Tom reclaimed his legacy.
    He walked into WSM one day, as I was behind the counter and after perusing the case, stated that the “grunts” we had labeled as “grey snapper”, was not! Here was I, my mentor for all things fish, had just in a few words, laid me out.

    Tom taught me to learn and appreciate things that I would have never dreamed of. Seafood became my passion. He called me “Fishsister” to the end.

  • 17. dorette  |  March 9, 2010 at 11:40 am

    tom, you will be sorely missed. i always enjoyed coming into your shop for that shore feeling and felt immediately transported to a place with heart and soul. it was a shock to step back outside to find you weren’t at the beach after all. you were the real deal. even if you were disgruntled – which was often – i always knew where you stood! and i always knew the fish, softshells, oysters, shrimp, and shad roe were the BEST!!! i agree that we often learn more about a person after they are gone — and i am sorry the bouillabbaise show we had planned – this was back in 1998 – never came off! but in tribute to you, i have posted it on my blog. you would have had a million things to say about it!

    merci pour tout! bless your path now and condolences to kay.


  • 18. Rolly Jackson  |  March 15, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Jake, what a wonderful eulogy. I always referred to Tom as my “cousin in law” as he was first cousin to my brother’s wife who is from Atlantic, North Carolina. Tom’s grandparents lived in Atlantic, North Carolina and his father grew up there. I first met Tom in the early 70’s in Chapel Hill and we somehow learned that we had a kindred connection both from our Down East connection and when I say Down East, I mean east of Beaufort, North Carolina! and from his cousin Mary Ann Willis. I grew up in Beaufort, North Carolina and shared Tom’s love of the coast and the sea and we woud swap sea stories. I knew of his trips to Norway and his degree in biology and of his distain for politicians. In the 70’s when I decided to go to law school, I told Tom of my plans and he told his cousin Milan? in Atlantic who told his mother who called my mother in Beaufort and told her. I then got a phone call from my father asking about my plans to go to law school when I had never intended to tell them. I alternated years of law school with commercial fishing for menhaden (shad) and would gather king macheral, spanish macheral, and blue fish out of the net and clean them and freeze them and bring them back to Carrboro and put them in the freezer and once or twice a year I would have a seafood cookout. I would go to see Tom and tell him I was having a cookout and needed some fresh blue crabs, shrimp and or oysters to add to my cookout and he would get them for me fresh. He was the only fish dealer that I would trust to get me fresh seafood for my cookouts! I went by Tom’s market in Carrboro about a month ago looking for him and looked at the old trucks and cars parked around and said yes, Tom truly follows the fisherman’s creed that someday I will fix that old truck or need a part off of it to fix my other truck.
    He is one of a kind and is missed.

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