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Shell-a-brating life

By Staff | Jun 10, 2015

Anne Joffe will celebrate the 40th anniversary of She Sells Sea Shells in 2016. CRAIG GARRETT

How much time do you have? Because it’d take maybe weeks to sort through Anne Joffe and her stuff, the Sanibel businesswoman whose hoard of sea shells, fossils, sea glass, rocks and mermaid gizmos astonishes even serious collectors.

She has in her Dunes home rooms, boxes, jars, glass cabinets and drawers of shells and shell crafts, stuffed toys, furniture and art relating to her passion and, ultimately, her two She Sells Sea Shells shops. She’ll celebrate 40 years in business in Sanibel in 2016.

In her colorful and lushly landscaped home, a reclining and elegant wood mermaid welcomes visitors. The creature’s exposed upper torso gets rubbed by many of her guests, Joffe said, for luck.

She has in a side room things relating to the Spanish culture, rugs and heavy furniture and gewgaws from her travels. That corner is boxed in by books and shells bequeathed by a deceased friend that she’s trying to catalogue. The Spanish collection seems oddly infused among so much relating to the seashore.

As important as her collections, Joffee has trekked the world, written a couple of books on shelling, lectured on the topic, positioned herself in her work as a figurehead of the shelling and tourism industries in Sanibel and Captiva for some 40 years.

Anne Joffe’s shelling group in the Bahamas. The excursions are mostly in May. PHOTO PROVIDED

On a touching note, Joffe is writing a book on how mollusks and shell critters repair their little domains with the workmanship of a roofer fixing a hurricane-damaged home. She has dozens of such shells clustered, one that repaired itself around a manmade rubber thing dropped overboard.

Her most recent venture, at least for serious shellers, is the excursions she organizes, booking islanders to shelling meccas in west Africa, Mexico, the western Pacific, hotspots in a dozen Caribbean islands, among other beaches of extreme eclat and isolation.

Her group’s trip in May to the Bahamas produced a trove of shells, she said, back home in Sanibel digging through her better finds, ogling a queen’s crown shell she found in Crooked Island, for instance.

“And after all these years,” Joffe drawls in heavy New Englandese, “it’s still the trip over the (Sanibel) causeway that’s best. It’s my home, the best thing that ever happened to me.”

The former Anne Guiness as a kid scooped clam shells on the Atlantic shores of Massachusetts. She would study microbiology, running a couple of disease labs until her passion came calling. Of all places, Anne Joffe formed the Louisville Shell Club. She and husband David arrived on a business move. Anne spooned fossil shells on the Ohio River, and inevitably with a foot of sand on its floors, opened a shell shop in that Kentucky city. Customers would remove their shoes and their children would play with shovels and pails. The business was immensely successful, she said.

“Why not,” she said, “I was a shell person.”

The Joffes located to Sanibel in 1973, opening her souvenir/collectable shops that today stay open 365 days. Customers demanded a holiday shop in Sanibel, even if the products often derive from the Philippines. David Joffe runs the business.

With Anne Joffe, it always goes back to her stories. At every corner, a new one surfaces like dislodged a sea fan. She’s stayed at the Fiji home of the actor and shell museum benefactor Raymond Burr, for instance. She was close to island businessman Sam Bailey, the island treasure Esperanza Woodring, others of stature, even notoriety. She and David located in Sanibel when some 500 lived here. Today there are 6,500 full-timers, thousands more in season. She has served as chair of the San-Cap Islands chamber, has chaperoned island shell clubs for decades. She has judged shell shows in every continent.

With green-tipped fingernails, Joffe in her home caresses the shells she mostly adores, as if they were one of her five children.

“Isn’t he a pretty little guy,” she said of a pink clam shell, gently placing it back in its casing, and then shares a story about her final shelling trip in advanced age.

“In about 25 years,” she said.