Not too long a go, I was driving by an area where a tropical fish store has long resided, one that I used to go to as a kid. Being in an introspective mood, I decided to drop in and see what was cooking! At first, you’d think, “Why is this owner of a couple of internet-based marine aquarium companies dropping in to a local fish store?” It’s an easy question to answer: Because I’m a hobbyist, and as a hobbyist, there are few better places in the world to go than the local fish store! It’s one of the best things that we can do!
In this postmodern, internet-enabled hobby world, it seems that the venerable local fish store (“LFS”) is under constant attack. Online vendors, hobbyist garage-based start-ups, group buys, eBay, Amazon, and even club auctions and frag swaps are but a few of the challenges facing the brick-and-mortar fish store’s very existence. These guys get it from all directions! Our hobby changes constantly and quickly. What was hot 3 months ago is yesterday’s news. Trends and shifts in interest happen so quickly in this internet-based world that the LFS barely has time to source a hot new item before it fades into memory.
Add this to the fact that many “dialed in” hobbyists seem to enjoy bashing the “guy at the LFS”, and you’ve got a big-time assault on one of the hobby’s most endearing institutions. Why is this so? What created this unfair stereotype? Does being active in a forum or buying only online make you somehow cooler? Does everyone who owns works for an online vendor have some special “instant cred” because they have a fancy logo and an email address? (Wait, don’t answer that..LOL). But seriously, what gives?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again- it’s time to re-think the much-maligned LFS and take a look at what it does so very well.
Believe it or not, the LFS has significant advantages over many other forms of aquatic businesses.
First, think about convenience. For most hobbyists, the LFS is convenient, close and quick, especially if you know what you want. If you need a pack of frozen food, a replacement filter cartridge, or a length of tubing, you can get it the same day. No worries about shipping, lost packages, and weekend delivery delays. And, you have the chance to check out some cool livestock while you’re there! Sure, you can do that on line, but there’s nothing like seeing that hot new Apistogramma swimming right in front of your face!
Sure, the LFS will not have every item that you see on line, but neither do many on-line sources. You’ll need to do some legwork to find the more exotic things. Many good LFS owners will try to source specialty items for you if they can. Remember, the LFS owner has different overhead to cover, and his/her business model is quite different than an online business.
That trendy LED light, German filter system. or ultra-hot protein skimmer that’s all the rage on the forums will sit on the shelf at the LFS for months or longer before it’s sold, so you’re more likely to see more well-established products with broader appeal at the LFS. Notice I said “broader appeal”? The LFS has to cater to a far wider variety of customers than your typical e-tailer, who, with less overhead, and the wonder of drop-shipping, can typically offer more obscure products much more easily. It’s just unfair to expect the same from the LFS. They sell what works, because they have to. And you know what? There is room for both in this hobby.
In my travels, I’ve met many really cool LFS owners and visited some amazing stores. The great ones are always run by passionate, committed, and knowledgeable people, and they are clean, well stocked, and thoughtfully configured. The really great ones become what I call “destination” stores – businesses you’ll gladly drive an hour or more to visit, schedule a layover to see, or take every out-of-town fish geek to. There are plenty of ‘em out there, too.
A common knock on the LFS is the stereotype of the “ignorant employee”. Hobbyists on forums love to share stories of the LFS employee that sold that Catalaphyllia to the hobbyist as an anemone, or the one who sent the beginner home with a Nano Cube, two Oscars and a Plecostomus at the same time. Let’s be honest here- ignorant fish people are not limited to the LFS. After perusing forums and message boards for decades, I’ve seen far more absurd “advice” and stupidity online than I ever have in the local stores.
Some online coral “vendors” are (I will be frank here) some of the stupidest hobby people I’ve ever met. Just because you can buy a cheap coral from Indo, hack it into 3 pieces, and sell it on a website under a trendy name for an obscene price does NOT make you more qualified to dispense hobby advice, or even a good business person. In fact, I’d sometimes be more inclined to take the advice I’d hear from the 17-year-old passionate reef geek working behind the counter at the LFS than I would from the “expert” at the online “coral chop shop.” At least the 17-year-old is physically working with fish and corals daily, and his work is obvious to all those who see. He’s not hiding behind a URL or fancy logo.
OK, I just bashed one of my own industry sectors. Is NOTHING sacred, Fellman? Nope.
Advice from ANY source in this hobby should always be taken with a grain of salt. Whether you’re buying on line or buying at the fish store down the street, caveat emptor applies! The ultimate responsibility for bad decisions is that of the hobbyist. A little reading and talking to more experienced hobbyists before making that purchase will go a long way towards greater success.
The LFS is a “breeding ground” for hobby/industry talent. Many great hobby movers-and-shakers got their start at the LFS. I vividly recall the first time I ever saw captive-bred Cardinal fish many years ago at my LFS. The enthusiastic teenage employee proudly pointed them out to me and lovingly showed me how he fed them, etc. An amazing accomplishment at the time-and the kid was just over-the-top stoked!
I never forgot his enthusiasm, and neither did he! His name is Dustin Dorton, who is now President at a little aquatic business in Florida called ORA. Yeah, those guys. He’ll be the first to tell you that it all started at his LFS, where he gained valuable experience that you just can’t gain through other retail avenues. Who knows what other future “superstars” are out their right now, netting Neon Tetras for customers while experimenting with the next great hobby breakthrough in the back room?
Let’s face it-even in this Facebook-optimized, Twitter-enabled, Instagram-powered world, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with other fish geeks. The idea of 140 characters being able to communicate all that you need to know to make a buying decision is just stupid. There, I said it again: I think that some of the social media platforms we embrace (and yeah, I embrace them reluctantly) and hold up as a “better way” to reach consumers are…well…idiotic. Who is stupid enough to make a buying decision based purely on an Instagram pic? Are today’s consumers too dumb, too busy, or too important to read more than a few words about something they supposedly love? What’s wrong with a conversation with an LFS employee before you buy? Better to “dumb down” the message? Who is the benevolent, apparently “godlike” patron of the marketing world who decided that consumers don’t like to actually understand what they are purchasing?
Calm down, Fellman….
The LFS is, and hopefully always will be, a “watering hole” for local hobbyists. A place to swap stories, exchange experiences, offer wisdom to beginners, and to keep the love and lore of the hobby alive. When you’re at the LFS, you’re among friends. It’s our tribe. You can’t always get that from a keyboard and monitor. It’s one of the delightful intangibles that the LFS can offer than no other hobby source can.
So stop trashing the LFS.
Finally, there is the…wonder. I remember seeing my first Sea Anemone at the LFS when I was a kid, and I never forgot the thrill. It seems like every time I visit my LFS, there is some kid just like me, with his face pressed up against the glass as he squeals with excitement at seeing a real “Nemo,” a Black Ghost Knifefish, or school of Neons for the first time. I still enjoy seeing fish that I’ve only read about, right there in front of me. Just because I have a couple of websites and a traveling hobby lecturer “career” doesn’t mean I’ve seen it all. For many of hobbyists, their first brush with the wonders of the aquatic world was at the LFS, and it launched a passion that changed the direction of their lives.
For the above reasons, and for hundreds more that I didn’t think to touch on, the LFS must endure. Support your LFS- encourage it, and participate in the culture that it perpetuates, just like you do on this forum. Think about the many benefits that the LFS offers, and think about what it will mean to our children to have this precious hobby resource, and to the generations of children as yet unborn.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it yet again! Long live the LFS!
Until next time...