After having accumulated a little money during my three years’ working in the Sinai Desert (Sinai Field Mission), I decided to come home to Texas. My wife (the first one) and I settled in Nacogdoches resolved to open a tropical fish store. A dream I’d had since I was a kid. I had never been to Nacogdoches, but according to U.S. News & World Report, it was one of “The Ten Best Places to Live in the United States” and the city fathers had even erected a billboard on the main road into town proclaiming this quote from the magazine, just in case some folks missed reading that issue. Nacogdoches, for any non-Texans who may be reading this, is Ass-Deep in the heart of the Deep East Texas Piney Woods—gorgeous country, simply breathtaking. ‘Paradise On Texas’.
We leased a small building on South Street, which was the southern part of the main drag through town, just off the square. Wanting everything to be perfect, I spent the entire summer of 1980 fitting out the inside of my shop. I built all the fixtures, assembled all the equipment, and even built the office desk my wife would be using to keep the books. I built floor-to-ceiling rustic cabinets to display the sixty aquariums which would hold our retail stock. All that could be seen were the fronts of the tanks; no filters, hoses, wires or anything to wreck the ambiance.
The overhead lights were dimmed, keeping the atmosphere what one would expect in a fine Public Aquarium, most of the light coming only from the aquariums themselves. At the very back of the store, I built a nine-foot by three-foot display tank, roughly 600 gallons—it was built into the wall, again so as not to ruin the effect. This was my dream aquarium, showcasing all the skills I had honed over a lifetime of fish-keeping. It was decorated with huge driftwood, rocky multi-leveled terraces, and no less than two dozen different varieties of live plants. The effect was that of looking into a cross section of the Amazon River. Beautiful Blue Discus, shoals of Cardinal Tetras, various South American catfish, and many other exotic South American species were all stocked in this display. It was the perfect closed ecosystem.
The retail stock tanks were also painstakingly decorated to provide examples of how fish should be kept in a home aquarium. No burping clams, no rotating ship’s wheels, no deep sea divers with bubbles coming out of their butt, no ‘Creatures from the Black Lagoon’, no ‘No Fishin’ signs—none of this dime-store shit in MY Shoppe. Oh Hell No. Every display reflected my fundamental conviction that tropical fish deserved to be represented in natural surroundings. Period.
Our store was beautiful. I set up five large display tanks in the entrance area, so that the first thing our customers would see were aquariums as they should be: All Natural: Live plants, Real Driftwood, wonderfully terraced natural gravel substrate, and of course exotic tropical fish. No goldfish, no guppies, no ‘trash fish’—for those they could go to Wal*Mart or Ben Franklin’s.
My stock tanks were filled with all the species I had always sought when I was in the hobby. There were knife fish, freshwater fire eels, black veil angelfish, gold veil angelfish, marble veil angelfish, discus, Clown Loaches, many colorful varieties of Tetras, Barbs, Gourami’s, African leaf fish… I had about a dozen different species of African Cichlids. There were Oscars, Arawanas, freshwater crustaceans, rare amphibians, and on and on. I even had a freshwater stingray from the Amazon River and an electric catfish from Africa, both truly rare specimens, and I was sure they would be snatched up within a week of my grand opening.
Everything a hobbyist would need to set up a perfectly natural and beautiful aquarium was available for purchase: Driftwood, live plants, natural gravel, a variety of river rocks, and of course all the hardware, to include all sizes of aquariums; all manner of pumps, filters, heaters, lights, etc. I even had Books! Hardbound Full-Color Aquarium Books for sale. Can you imagine? Books!
Eagerly, I counted the minutes until we opened the doors to ‘The Public’ for the first time. I was twenty-two years old and In Business! The Tropical Fish Business! I knew my shit. There was nothing anyone could possibly tell ME about Tropical Fish. No Ma’am. No Sir.
A few minutes before opening, Janet came over to me and said with not a little trepidation in her voice, “Uh, Lance, the parking lot is full.” (We had done quite a lot of advertising)
“Well great! Let’s let ‘em in.”
As she went to open up I was very excited. I would be talking to My People, The True Hobbyists. People who loved Tropical Fish Keeping as did I.
Door opened and here they came.
I greeted my first customer, a fortyish lady with big hair and perhaps a little too much make-up, “Good morning Ma’am and welcome to Aquarium World. How may I help you?”
“I need a crud-eater for my tank.”
“Yeah, I need a crud-eater to clean up that crud that gets all over the bottom.”
“You mean ‘detritus’?
“Ditra…who? I mean the fish poop. I want a crud eater to clean that up. In fac’ I’ll take two of ‘em.”
(I felt my hobbyist heart sinking with every word out of this woman’s mouth)
“Ma’am, there is not a fish on Earth that eats excrement.”
“Son, I didn’t say…er’cra…wha’d you say? I want a crud eater to eat all that fish crud off’n the bottom of my tank.”
“Ma’am, I can sell you a Plecostomus. They are very adept at cleaning up the algae and will also clean up any uneaten food that your other fish allow to fall to the substrate.
“You ain’t from aroun’ here, are ya Son? I don’t want no plebotta-musk damnit. I want a crud eater.
“Ma’am, there is no such fish as the one you are describing. I am very sorry.”
“You mean they don’t make crud eaters no more?”
“No Ma’am; I am sorry to say, ‘they’ don’t.”
“Well, I’m gonna go down ta Walmart; my cousin said that’s where she done got hers.”
Hoping that my first customer was some kind of anomaly, I approached my next, a fiftyish woman with cubby red cheeks and a pleasant look about her.
“Good morning Ma’am and welcome to Aquarium World. How may I help you?”
“I’m lookin’ for the guppies, but I ain’t seein’ none.”
“I’m sorry Ma’am, but we don’t sell guppies. We have some lovely Neon Tetras over here and some very colorful Cardinal Tetras as well: Very beautiful and rather low-maintenance.”
“They have babies?” she asked.
“Well, uh… yes; they can be bred in captivity, but it is rather involved and labor intensive on the part of the hobbyist. You will need an extra aquarium and some infusoria to feed the fry. I have a wonderfully well-illustrated book in the front room which describes how to breed many species of egg layers. I would be happy to show it to …”
“They don’t have no babies?”
“No ma’am, they are not live-bearers like your guppies, platys, mollies and the like. They lay eggs, and if you provide the proper…”
“My Gran-baby, she likes to see them babies pop outta the mama.”
“I’m sorry Ma’am, I just don’t sell those species here. Are you sure I can’t interest you in some more interesting varieties of tropical fish?”
“What the hell could be more int’restin’ than God’s miracle of life happenin’ in front of my gran’baby’s eyes right there in my own fish bowl? You ain’t from aroun’ here, are ya Boy? You one of them ath’ists or sumthin’?”
“Ma’am, perhaps you should try Walmart.”
I looked at Janet, standing behind the counter waiting to ring up our first sale. She just gave me that “Don’t look at me,” look.
There were seven or eight other customers in the shop perusing all the aquariums. None seemed to require my assistance. Looking around for someone who might be needing my expertise, I spied an elderly man, tall and lean and rough-looking and right out of a Marlboro ad. He was standing in front of my fish food display, which could be compared to the colorful displays of herbal tea one might find at some high-end New York tea house. I was very proud of that display, but the choices were myriad and probably for him, I surmised, somewhat overwhelming.
“Good Morning Sir. Welcome to Aquarium World. May I help you with the fish food selection?”
“Mornin’ back atcha, Young Man. I’m lookin’ for some fish food for my pet catfish. Been feedin’ ‘im cornbread and bits of fried chicken, but he don’t seem to like that much.”
“Uh…yes. I suppose he wouldn’t. May I ask what kind of catfish you have? Pimelodella pictus, Corydoras, Plecostomus?”
“Oh, I see… I have some pellets here specially formulated for bottom feeders. These should do nicely and they won’t cloud up your aquarium as I’m certain the cornbread is.
“Aquarium? Hell Son. I keep him in a big ole mason jar. Don’t need no ‘quarium.”
“Did you need anything else today Sir?”
“Nope. This here’ll do me. Much obliged.”
“Very well. My wife can ring you up over at the counter. Thank you for shopping at Aquarium World.”
Why was I suddenly feeling as if I had died and gone to Dante’s Hell and was stuck in the movie Deliverance?
I walked around a bit, observing my exotic fish and eavesdropping on my customers.
“Hey Marlene! Come looky here at this one!”
“What is’t Nathan?”
“Says ‘Lectric Catfish’ right there. You ever heard a such?”
“It looks so real! Caint even see where the batteries go.”
I moved on.
There was a young couple giggling in front of my Fire Newt tank. They looked like college students, probably from Stephen F. Austin, the local university. I eased closer to eavesdrop. I was curious as to what was so damn funny about my Fire Newts.
“Hey Mark,” the girl whispered to her boyfriend, “Those two are doing ‘sixty-nine.’’
More quiet giggling. Then ‘Mark’ said, “She turn’d me into a newt… I got bettah.” More giggling.
I had to smile.
“Hey Honey.” Janet was calling to me. “Could you come here for a sec?”
She was still with The Marlboro Man.
“Is there a problem Sir? I asked.
“Son, I just got one question.”
“What is so Goddamn special ‘bout this here rock that it costs nine dollars?”
“Well, you see Sir, this rock is perfect for use in closed aquarium systems, as it has no iron ore, unlike most of the rocks you may pick up around here in east Texas. It will not rust in your aquarium and kill your fish. It is imported from Colorado. It is a river rock, washed clean by nature.”
“Bullshit! I guess I’m in the wrong business. I s’pose I should just sell all my cattle and go to harvestin’ rocks off my ranch. Hell. I got plenty rocks, I could retire in a year. By th’ way, y’all ain’t from ‘round here, are y’all?” ”
Things did not improve much from there. As soon as we closed I called my wholesale sales rep in Bossier City and told him to rush me some guppies, platys, mollies and a few score crud eaters. Oh, and throw in some burping clams and some neon-colored plastic plants. And yes, I will pay the extra charge for next-day delivery.