It can be hard to find native coastal people who have lived, worked and owned a business in the same location for multiple generations — not impossible, but difficult. That’s part of what makes Chris Medlin, owner of East Coast Sports in Surf City on Topsail Island, so unusual.
He’s been there so long that he can’t remember the exact time he caught his first fish, but he assumes it was a spot at the old Barnacle Bill’s Pier.
“I can’t remember my first time going fishing, but I’m sure it was beside my granddad, Charlie, who owned and/or operated the piers where I was raised,” he recently told Coastal Review.
Medlin’s grandfather Charlie Medlin had moved to Topsail Island in 1948.
“He had saved up enough money to put himself through business college and moved to Topsail to open an icehouse.” In those days that literally meant delivering blocks of ice to people’s homes for their nonelectric ice boxes.
Over the years the ice business evolved and became a beach grocery store. But then a different need was seen.
“It was turned into a serious tackle shop in the 1980s by my father, Doug, after granddad retired.”
There was a need for that kind of store on Topsail Island, he said. “I’ve tried to do like granddad,” Medlin said. “He always said, ‘Find a need and fill it.’”
East Coast Sports has been a successful venture ever since, he said.
“Our current model is very successful. We are continuing to grow every year,” Medlin said.
The inventory is vast and varied and covers two stories of a large building on Roland Avenue. Medlin said the shop’s online reviews are a reflection of the friendly and helpful staff.
“We couldn’t do it without all of our employees to whom I feel indebted. We can only be successful if we can keep an upbeat crew.”
Medlin said the key is treating his employees fairly and respectfully. “My granddad and my father taught me to value people and their time. If you owe them, you pay them.”
And respect should be the rule for whatever you are doing in life, he said.
“You should pay the same respect to everyone you cross paths with — rich, poor, old or young. Everyone.”
But the history of the business has not been all sunshine and roses. The old Barnacle Bill’s Pier was wiped out by hurricanes in 1996.
“We lost Barnacle Bill’s because of it being knocked down and torn up during Bertha and then again during Fran. We had already rebuilt the pier. Lost it two times in the same year.”
It was an emotional period.
“First time I ever saw pop cry. East Coast Sports was under 3 feet of mud.”
But they soldiered on and again rebuilt.
“We needed to find something while we rebuilt our lives. We did roofing — shingles, tar, standing seam. We also did some siding and remodeling.”
The work allowed them to keep the lights on while they rebuilt the shop, but the sideline was temporary.
“Once East Coast got back up and running we slowly got out of construction,” Medlin said.
He found that it was not a great way for him to go forward with raising his family due to the dangers involved. It also just didn’t appeal to him in the long run. “I didn’t love that job like I do running the store.”
But then they had to do it all again after Hurricane Florence in 2018.
“We got heavy damage from Florence and updated the shop since we had to repair anyway — made it into a more open concept,” he said.
As you might expect from someone who runs a generation-spanning small business, family is especially important to Medlin. And each year he sponsors a kids fishing derby and gives away about 300 rods, reels and bait.
“It’s many kids’ first fishing rod,” he said.
This past year was the 20th and participation has increased every year.
Medlin said his entire family loves to fish. His 13-year-old daughter Caiya and 16-year-old son Charlie have caught some big ones.
“Charlie once landed an amberjack that was probably 40 pounds and a shark of around 100 pounds.”
Medlin’s wife Chaundel likes to go too, but it had better be the right day. “My wife enjoys fishing in perfect conditions,” he said slyly.
The Medlins also like to travel and of course they do some fishing while away.
“My son and I usually do a charter wherever we travel,” Medlin said, noting that there’s nothing like getting out on the water in a new place to see what the local action is like. But not all their family trips include fishing. Chris and Charlie recently visited Peru where they didn’t do any fishing but they did see Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines and the city of Lima.
“No fishing on that trip but it was pretty amazing,” he said.
Topsail Island has changed a lot since Medlin was young, he said, but one thing that hasn’t changed is people’s desire to hit the water when they arrive.
“The fishing spirit is the same,” he said, adding that fishing industry advancements have made the pastime better for everybody. “The best innovation has to be braided line and graphite rods. Both have revolutionized the tackle business and made most people capable of landing a big fish.”
For many, walking into a tackle shop and looking at all the gear can be bewildering but modern gear has made getting into fishing more accessible.
“Gear has absolutely gotten better across the board. There are technical advances every day in bait, gear, lures, reels and rods,” he said.