SOUTHINGTON — Bill Close, the well-known founder and former owner of one of the Plantsville section’s oldest businesses, died at his home in Cheshire on Saturday. He was 86.
An enthusiastic skier, jet skier, golfer and boatsman who stayed athletic well into his 80s, the energetic Close is probably best known for Close Harbour Seafood on Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike, a seafood restaurant and market that he opened with his wife Sandy in 1982 and helped resuscitate after a fire in 2015.
“He meant a lot to the area. He was very well known, very likeable,” said Betsy Tooker, co-owner of Tops Marketplace, a neighboring Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike business that also rebounded from a fire. “He was a great neighbor. When he opened his fish market into almost like a restaurant, we would tell people, ‘Hey, do you want great seafood? We would send them his way.’”
Bill and Sandy Close sold the business to their children, Rick Close and Lisa Onofri, in 2016. As a retiree, Bill Close came to Close Harbour daily as a mentor to the new owners and to keep in touch with friends and customers. If he saw a problem at the restaurant, Close would jump right in and fix it, even if the new owners didn’t want him to, said Dave Bibiase, the restaurant’s chef.
An almost relentlessly hands-on entrepreneur, Close placed his own personal stamp on the business during his almost 34 years as its owner. For years, he would travel once or twice a week to Portland, Maine, to buy seafood. A good photographer, Close’s pictures of Maine and the docks he bought from line the walls of the establishment, Bibaise said.
People used to call him the mayor of Close Harbour, Bibiase said.
“He was always making people laugh,” Bibaise said. “He was always making comments. He had no filter. He liked to run his mouth and people loved it. Sometimes you would say, ‘Oh my God. Did he just say that?’ ”
But Close was not crude, usually saving his more challenging jokes for those who knew him well. Beneath his bonhomie was a very active intelligence that knew well what it took to be successful, Bibaise said.
“He could talk seafood with anybody for a very, very long time,” Bibaise said. “ ‘The most important thing to know is the people.’ He would say that all the time. ‘It doesn’t matter how much this costs or how good this tastes. It is all about people.’ He really understood that.”
Close had a rule that he maintained with great discipline: His fish market could never smell like fish. Close was diligent about keeping the place clean and stocked with fresh seafood, Bibaise said.
The fire challenged Close as perhaps little else had. It destroyed about a quarter of the building and heavily damaged the rest of it. Close Harbour was closed for 16 months. Close was in the middle of a renovation when the fire started in a back room and spread to a wall adjoining a new addition. He saw it start, called 911 and unsuccessfully tried to douse the flames with a hose.
Close and his wife, Sandy, kept in touch with customers via social media as the place was rebuilt.
In addition to owning Close Harbour, Close was vice president for many years of the Litchfield Farm Shop and president of Lobster Broker, Inc.
Close will be missed, Bibaise said.
“He had a huge personality. People just loved him.”