“No Darlin’ I wanna go to that new fish store and buy me a coupla crud-eaters for my ‘quarium.”
After having accumulated a little money during my three years’ working in the Sinai Desert
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 better part of the 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 ‘Cook 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.
(Not My Tank, but very similar)
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 a large octagon display tank in the entrance area, so that the first thing our customers would see was an aquarium as it 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)
“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 chubby 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.”
I Suspect This Was Mudcat Before He Was ‘Adopted’:
Street Cred: joecartoondotcom
“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.”
Input Output: Electricity
Video Credit: JoniJourney
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.
I probably forgot to mention this, but we were so poor at first that we had to live in the shop, (Which was against a City Ordinance Local Law) no longer able to afford the apartment we lived in after spending all of our savings on getting the shop ready to open. We slept on army cots procured from my
And That Was Just My First Day.
Where were the True Hobbyists?
Continuation of this Old Fish Tale:
Approximately six or seven months after our “Illustrious Grand Opening” we had built up some decent clientele who appreciated exotic (read “expensive”) specimens, hence we were turning tidy profits.
I decided to expand into the flip-side of the coin that is the ‘Tropical Fish Business’:
‘Salt Water Exotics’—even more expensive and greater profit margin to boot.
“My Dream” That Kept Me Up Most Nights
Once I Had Made My Decision
There was a calculated risk in this, as keeping reef fish in closed systems during the Eighties was not nearly as sophisticated nor as easy as it is today.
The equipment was just freshwater still, but clever manufacturers started packaging and labeling the same equipment “For Salt Water Aquariums” and jacked the price about ten percent.
Being the ‘Professional’ that I was; I spotted this ruse instantly.
There was one decent product that did come on the market and it definitely was ‘strictly’ for marine aquariums: ‘Instant Ocean.’
Just add water and you’re good to go.
The little front section of Aquarium World had one octagon display tank and a shelf with all those expensive books that nobody ever bought, so I had ample room to set up my marine tanks there.
I purchased a one hundred gallon aquarium and two fifties to go on either side.
The set-up satisfied me technically and pleased me aesthetically.
Over the course of a few weeks I accumulated all the equipment (and boxes of ‘Instant Ocean’) I needed.
Suitable substrate required some searching though. All the available literature recommended crushed coral.
“Hello? I live in The Piney Woods of East Texas.”
Not a lot of coral here, crushed or otherwise.
Then I discovered in one book that crushed oyster shell would work almost equally well, with the caveat that it can be hard on bottom feeders, due to the semi-sharp nature of it.
We all must make trade-offs in our lives, even bottom feeders. (I have known a few—mostly of the ’two-legged’ variety, but that is a ‘different’ post.
Turns out, I could purchase all the crushed oyster shell I would ever need right there in Nacogdoches. I did not know it at the time, but it is used in gardening. I guess it does something magical when mixed in with the soil.
So with that last little hurdle hurdled over, I assembled my Marine Aquariums.
Janet and I had driven to our primary wholesaler, Fritz Pet Products in Dallas the previous Saturday. They delivered every week, but I needed to purchase décor for my tanks and needed to pick it out myself, not trusting some buck-tooth stock puller to pick the most suitable (to me) pieces of coral, alkaline rocks, et cetera.
We did not have a car at the time, our last one having given up the ghost. But, happily one of the car dealerships had a side-business: “Rex’s Rent-A-Wreck.” For just ten bucks a day we could have vehicular transportation, with just one stipulation: “Do not take it out-of-town—local use only,”
Well, screw that!
We drove it to Dallas (And later to Houston and Galveston)
Guess Ol’ Rex never bothered to check the odometer.
After getting the tanks decorated to my satisfaction, filling them with Instantly made ocean, checking that the filters and other equipment was working properly, there was yet one thing to do before I could put reef fish in the aquariums.
‘Season’ the tanks.
Without getting too technical, this means getting the ‘nitrogen cycle’ started.
Since I am lazy, I stole this rather abbreviated explanation from the internet:
‘The natural Nitrogen Cycle is a full-cycle where Nitrogen goes from air to plant to animal to bacteria and back to air; such a system needs no human intervention. In an aquarium though, the Nitrogen process is less a cycle and more a biochemical cascade that involves the continual chemical degradation of nitrogenous compounds from ammonia to nitrite to nitrate. The final nitrates are then taken up by aquarium plants or removed from the water by other means.“
Now knowing that black mollies are naturally brackish water fish in the wild (But always marketed as ‘fresh-water’ and popular like guppies, because they are cheap and, like guppies, are live-bearers), I knew they could thrive in pure sea water as well.
I needed them in my marine tanks to jump-start the cycle, thus ‘seasoning’ the tanks.
So I threw a dozen each into my fifty gallons, and two dozen into my one hundred gallon.
They did just fine and were soon popping out baby black mollies like rabbits pop out baby rabbits.
Pretty soon I was up to my ass in black mollies (so I started selling the off-spring down the river, so to speak.
After a few weeks of this, and using my water testing kits, monitoring the ammonia and nitrite levels, I announced to Janet,
“It’s time to go to Houston via Galveston. Please call up Rex and tell him we need to rent his wreck for a few days.”
“Why do I always have to call him?” she demanded.
“Because he has a crush on you and he don’t much care for me. That’s why.”
“I know we are going to “Salt-Water Marine” wholesaler in Houston so you can buy some damn fish, but why Galveston?”
“Because you need a tan,” I said.
“Lance, you’re an asshole. Have I ever mentioned that?”
“I need hermit crabs for my tanks and they come for free on the beach at Galveston. Just have to search ‘em out, pick ‘em up and and bag ‘em up.”
“I’ll be damned if I’m gonna even touch, let alone pick up a hermit crab,” she said.
“Don’t fret. You’ll be lying on a beach towel getting that tan you so desperately need while I am combing the beach, hermit hunting. When night falls, we’ll check into The Flagship Hotel, order room service with a bottle of wine and make love. You could use a little mini-vacation and some pampering. God knows you’ve earned it. And… we get to sleep in a real bed, instead of an army cot. Sound good?”
The Glorious Flagship
“What about the crabs? They gonna get room service too?”
“Naw, they’re gonna sleep in a bucket in the car. We’ll have the whole room to ourselves.”
Bright and early next morning, in high spirits and so happy to be getting out of Nacogdoches, we were south-bound and down, Destination: Galveston.