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Minding the Store

Fishs Eddy is a hamlet along the Delaware River in Delaware County, New York. In 1986, two youngsters, Julie Gaines and David Lenovitz went camping in upstate New York and, when returning home, stopped for lunch at Fishs Eddy. They found the name oddly spelled but interesting, and decided that if they ever owned a store they would name it Fishs Eddy. Soon, they found a tiny shop near Gramercy Park with a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window. Shortly after, the store had a sign on top that said ‘Fishs Eddy’.

The story of this store is narrated by the co-founder, Gaines, in this instructive picture book called Minding the Store: A Big Story about a Small Business. The illustrations are done by Gaines’ and Lenovitz’s son, Ben.

When the Weinstock Brothers hardware store was going out of business, Gaines and Lenovitz lucked out – they bought the counter, old nail kegs and wooden boxes at a throwaway price. Then, vintage paintings, old chairs, cabinets, and vintage glassware were picked up from flea markets. The enterprising couple even dug through a dumpster outside of a middle school and found a cabinet that could be sold at the store. Their mothers’ garages were the next target in a hunt for dishes, including several sets that were yet unopened gifts.

A cluster of businesses formed a restaurant supply district along the Bowery, a street and neighbourhood in the south end of Manhattan. Gaines and Lenovitz took frequent trips here. On one visit to a store, they found the basement full of soot-covered dishes dating back to the 1900s. Excited, the couple unearthed old creamers, butter pats, mugs, bouillon cups, and plates. They found more treasures in the basements of old hotels, diners, schools, and railroads. What was unwanted and left in basements was picked up by the couple in their dented blue pick-up, scrubbed for days to uncover the patterns, and sold at Fishs Eddy.

The youthful couple were compulsive expansionists. Gaines mentions that each time she saw a ‘For Rent’ sign, it would trigger a euphoric reaction. They introduced patterns on their dishes, including even a collaboration with fashion designer, Cynthia Rowley. However, the rapid expansions with borrowed money resulted in them seeking a professional manager. The anecdotes shared of the first two CEOs they hired are hilarious. The first used the corporate credit card for expensive lunches and the second CEO had gift baskets delivered to her place. Both get fired. The third CEO organizes endless meetings. A tired Lenovitz would often leave meetings mid-way on the pretext that he has to feed his parking meter and never returns.

Under this third CEO, sales at Fishs Eddy recover but marital problems arise between the couple. Also, Gaines get diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Lenovitz increases his pot smoking. Staff morale hit rock bottom. Finally, they make the hard decision of firing the CEO even if it meant lower sales and greater hardship. The difference in objectives of a professional manager versus an entrepreneur is very visible. To one, growing sales even on a snowy day is critical. As is cost cutting. To the other, the staff morale of employees and sheer excitement of running a business is key. The book also discusses the problems of hiring the right people, including their respective mothers, at the store.

It’s a very simple read with illustrations. However, there are important business lessons within its pages. The founders started small with no inhibitions about getting their hands dirty, sometimes literally in basements or dumpsters. In one scene in the book, as they drove back from Harvard Club with the dishes carrying the Harvard Club logo, they joked, “Yeah, who’s smart now?” They saw opportunity where even the administrators at a prestigious business school did not. Borrowing excessively for expansion is never a good idea, but, fortunately, their decision to buy a warehouse in Staten Island that had appreciated in value, which when sold, helped pay down debt.

Today, Fishs Eddy products are associated with celebrities such as Amy Sedaris, Adam J Kurtz, Charley Harper, Todd Oldham, Cleo Wade, Mimi Pond, and Wayne White. They carry their original New York city skyline design that Gaines drew on a napkin while sitting at the Sunshine Diner. One interesting cup carries a picture of Donald Trump with a slogan at the bottom, “Proudly made by Mexicans”. Their quirky designs were also visible when Barack Obama’s country of origin was challenged a few years ago, a Fishs Eddy’s sushi dish was designed of Obama’s birth certificate. Gaines mentioned in one of the interviews that the best-selling mug says, “Good Morning Asshole.” Another hot seller has a picture of a woman that says, “Wench.” These artfully designed dishes can be purchased at several retailers. Hoovers estimates the company’s revenues at US$9 million with fourteen employees.