The owner of Liam’s, the iconic fried clam shack that’s been his livelihood on Nauset Beach for 28 years, is just days away from losing his restaurant after a nor’easter and astronomical high tides ravaged the beach Friday and Saturday.
John Ohman watched as the beach eroded and his restaurant was taken over by waves and sand, now nearly abutting the ocean. He awaits a decision Wednesday night from the Orleans Board of Selectmen about whether they’ll tear the structure down, as well as terminate his contract with the town to lease the building. But even if the town votes not to demolish the building, Ohman thinks it will come down.
“Mother Nature may have something else in store,” Ohman said. “Literally, the sand is eating under the foundation right now. It’s in danger of falling into the ocean.”
Ohman has owned Liam’s since 1990, although its history goes back much further to the early 50s, when it was operated by a family under the name Philbrick’s Snack Shack. When he took over the building, he renamed it for his son, born the same year.
Ohman said Liam’s is known to people across the country — and even beyond — who have visited Nauset Beach. Liam’s fried up clams, oysters, scallops, and other seafood, but it’s famous for something else.
“If you Googled Liam’s, it would come up with onion rings,” Ohman says. “We sold 4,000 pounds of onions in the summer.”
Ohman has lived on Cape Cod for more than 40 years and loves it dearly. In its heyday, Ohman described Nauset Beach as “a magical mystery tour.”
“I think it was a magical moment time in the history of Cape Cod, where the sea met the tourism industry with a perfect symbiosis of great seafood, all the sealife — whales and sharks — and great music,” he said. “It was a mecca of a place to be. The beach is still there, but I would venture to say that they’re going to have a lot of work. It would take an acrobat to get down those stairs right now.”
Ohman said he’s developed relationships with many customers and employees over the years who are just as sad as he is to see it go.
“You become part of their life,” he said. “One of my employees was there yesterday crying. It was her first and only job before she became a school teacher. She was with her daughter, and she said she wanted her daughter to work there, too.”
Ohman is a longtime member of the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates, which works with the county commissioners to enhance regional services and adopt county ordinances. Calling himself a strong believer in global warming, he says the local government has long been aware that weather like this was coming eventually, although they did not plan for an event like the weekend storm to come this soon.
“In my lifetime, I expect to see Cape Cod become a series of islands,” he said. “I’m not God — I don’t know, but the sea level rise is very tenuous.”
But even as the waves eat away at his building’s foundation, he can’t help marveling over the ocean as it encroaches.
“The power of the ocean, honestly, it’s breathtaking,” Ohman said. “Beyond the sadness, which is definitely there, it’s breathtaking to be there and listen to the power of the ocean.”
Ohman believes he should carry on the tradition of Liam’s, for its visitors and for his now 28-year-old son.
“I’ll miss it dearly and I’ll have to sit back, take some deep breaths, and figure out what’s coming next,” he said. “I’ve always been a glass-half-full type of person.”