Sol Lamport, ex-marine, fisherman and refugee from the Russian Revolution, is not a man who cares much for sailing or sailboats. Or even sailors, for the matter of that. "Big-boat sailors are snobs," says Sol bluntly, in the rich, velour accents of New York's garment district. "They got lotsa money, and they got no time for me. One day this guy will call me in my office and say, 'Hey, Sol, how's this?' or, 'How's that?' or, 'How's the other thing?' and ask my advice. The next day this same guy will pass me and my Lydia in his yacht club without even a hello or something." Small-boat sailors, Sol concedes, are different. "They don't give a damn so long as you make for them good fabric."
Yet Sol Lamport and all sailors, big and small, exist happily together in a seagoing symbiosis. Without Sol's sailcloth many a sailor would be adrift under bare poles with nothing to drive his boat forward. Without sailors to buy his cloth, Sol would probably still be pushing yard goods for the big textile firm of Alexander Lamport & Bro. in the eight to 10 bracket. Eight to 10 thousand dollars, that is.
"There's two kinds people," Sol will explain to anyone who will listen, always insisting he doesn't care a fig for money. "There's those who make eight to 10 and those who make 10 to 80." There was never any question in Sol's mind which group he wanted to belong to, and sailors and sailboats provided the means. "For a man who knows so little about sailing, Sol sure made plenty of money out of it," was the way one sailmaker put it.
Sol Lamport discovered sails and sailing during the early 1950s, with some of the same overwhelming sense of arrival that the Hebrews felt on reaching the Promised Land. He and the company he worked for were both seeking new fields to conquer. "I was looking around for something people couldn't do without," says Sol, "and I discovered leisure. Leisure is like potatoes and flour. People can't do without potatoes. They can't do without flour. Leisure they can't do without either." Now, Sol asked himself, how does one combine the textile business with leisure to their mutual advantage? Camping? He investigated tents and sleeping bags. No. Golf bags? Fishing tackle? Nothing. Skiing parkas? Still nothing. So Sol took a weekend off and went up to Buzzard's Bay on a fishing trip.
"I've always been a fisherman," he says. "When my father was alive and I was a boy 8, 9 years old back in Russia he used to take me fishing. I can still remember the first fish I caught. It was some kind of Russian sunfish nearly as big as my hand. When I got older and had enough money for a bike I bought a rod instead. So now, whenever I have time, I go fishing. Well, this day I was fishing Buzzard's Bay in Massachusetts when these boats came by and, boy, it must have been one of the big regattas, and I was impressed by the amount of canvas hanging on the boats. This is about 12, 13 years ago, going back to '52 or '53. Here, all of a sudden, I see what looked to me like a million yards canvas staring in my face. There must have been only 50, 60 boats instead of the 2,000 I saw, but to me it looked like 4,000. Right then there was like a light going pop in my head. 'Lamport can make that stuff,' I said to myself. It was simple as that." Well, almost as simple. But first Sol the salesman had to convince his bosses there was a market.
It was not too difficult. At that time yacht sails, for the most part, were still made of canvas or, more specifically, heavy cotton imported from Europe or North Africa. This material was cursed with a multitude of drawbacks. It turned black with mildew if stuffed away wet in a sailbag. It was heavy and cumbersome and about as tractable as corrugated iron when soaked with spray. Worst of all, it changed its shape if not handled as carefully as a medieval tapestry.
The chemical marvels developed in World War II offered yachtsmen a bright hope of release from these miseries, and sailmakers were beginning to look longingly at the new wonder fabrics, nylon, Dacron and Orion. Du Pont and others were making the thread, but the companies that wove it into cloth showed little interest in the sailmakers' needs. "They made cloth in only a few weights," Sol explains, "and if you were a sail-maker you bought those weights or you didn't buy at all." The thought that struck Sol on Buzzard's Bay that day was that his firm could fill the gap by weaving cloth expressly for sailmakers. Armed with statistics and inventories, Sol persuaded the other Lamports to start a separate sailcloth business with him as its head.
"I figured it would cost Lamport a quarter of a million to set up. For them it would be a gamble," he says as he tells about it today, "and for me, too. But it would mean getting out of the eight to 10 and into the 10 to 80 crowd. I told my wife Lydia, 'If it don't work, we're broke. Nobody's gonna hire me. Nobody loses a quarter-million dollars easy, you know."
As it turned out, nobody got to lose anything. Sol's hard sell hit the nation's sail lofts like a September hurricane and, rather than attempt to stand up against this unwonted gale from the garment district, the sailmen simply ordered and reordered Sol's goods and found them good.
Sol himself is convinced that his methods are the epitome of the soft sell. "I can't talk too good," he was saying to a prospective customer over the phone in his office recently, "but I tell you this much. I don't never knock my competition. Never. Never, never. But you take this guy's goods. You can pull it apart with your hands. Yes, pull it apart." Sol cradled the phone for a moment so that he could grasp the obscene material made by one of the dozen other sailcloth weavers and pull it apart in pantomime. "This goods of mine," he went on when the phone was picked up again, "you gotta cut it with scissors."