BERLIN — Leslie Carson claims to be the most fortunate customer ever to set foot in one of Wes Miles’ shops. Miles has been in the trading business for decades and has operated shops selling the antiques and oddities he’s acquired on planet wide expeditions from Baltimore to Bali in Trading Companies he’s had in Florida, Utah and Hawaii. The couple met in Miles’ Sarasota, Fla. store.
“I walked out with the best piece of merchandise in the place,” Carson said.
Not too long after, a couple came in and literally bought out the store, giving Miles and Carson the opportunity to move their operations to Utah and, when they could resist the call of the tropics no longer, to Maui. Carson’s mother is in her golden years and was unwilling to join them on the Big Island so the couple packed up once again and headed back to the Eastern Shore, where they’ve settled Coconut Bay Trading Company into the William Street shops adjacent to Town Hall.
While technically an antique shop, the connotation only barely fits the store’s bent. Coconut Bay Trading Company might be best described as an art store specializing in the functional. From religious iconography, to jewelry, to antique practical and impractical everyday items from the Far East, each of the hundreds of pieces they sell is a work of art first.
Browsing around Coconut Bay Trading Company is similar to watching a really rich movie, each experience brings with it further revelation of detail the more often you look. Items you might have passed over upon first glance become prominent after a second perusal while others fade into the background. The store is in constant flux, not only as stock is added but also as your perception becomes accustomed to what is best described as browser overload.
As with any exotic trip, there are pro and con points to taking a guide. Unlike a trip to Bali, Thailand, or China at Coconut Bay Trading Company the guides — Miles and Carson — are just a few feet away at all times, allowing you to explore on your own and providing context for the sights whenever it is requested.
Every piece has a story and between them the couple knows them all or is in the middle of researching them. A canvas of St. Peter, for instance, they’ve recently acquired was saved from a church demolition in Baltimore in the late 1800s and has set Carson rifling through records to discover the church’s name and the likely artist.
If the couple doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of a particular piece — most are too old or too far removed from their origins to know the exact lineage — one of them will always be able to provide the story behind why a particular piece of art was created.
For example, Coconut Bay Trading Company carries a significant number of items that look as if they’re heavy, ornate Christmas ornaments. Upon closer examination these small spheres with metal figurines atop them are obviously Asian but their use is unfathomable.
Miles explained that these beautiful tiny artworks are actually opium weights, left over from when China traded in opium as if it were cash. Not content to use just lead weights, traders turned what was essentially one of the most mundane of their office supplies into sublime craft works whose aesthetic value well outlasted its functional value.
And the couple’s eye for such treasures is what makes Coconut Bay Trading Company such a pleasure to explore. Miles said they field a lot of question about their religious disposition, since they carry so much religious iconography from most of the world’s religions. But for he and Carson, the particular religion’s tenets are less interesting than the fact that people were so moved by their devotion they created exquisite art to celebrate it in their everyday lives.