Crystal shop owner: Zen and the art of aquarium maintenance

Aquatropics owner Kevin McMenamy, at right, converses July 12 in his store with longtime customer Pat Jacobson, who owns Weber’s Greenhouse in Brooklyn Center. (Sun Post staff photos by Laci Gagliano)

Aquatropics owner Kevin McMenamy, who will retire from the aquarium industry in August, talks about how his longtime Crystal shop went beyond the fishbowl

By LACI GAGLIANO
[email protected]

It’s a career that began on a whim and is nearly 40 years in the making, but aquarium expert Kevin McMenamy is ready to swim out of the fishbowl and back into the sea, announcing plans to retire within the next couple of months that caught a lot of his regulars slightly off-guard.

A mannequin is positioned next to a koi pond near the entrance to Aquatropics. The store specializes in having a large selection of tropical fish, many of which are of Central and South American origin.

After owning Aquatropics Aquarium Center in Crystal for the past 25 years, the gregarious purveyor of plecostomus (that’s a type of fish) decided the time had come to leave the industry and shut its doors on the same whim that went into opening it back in 1992.

McMenamy has been a fish seller and aquarium expert for 39 years, having gotten his start in May 1978 at Aqualand in South Minneapolis. Flying somewhat by the seat of his pants, he decided one day that he should open a fish store of his own. One thing led to another, and one day he found himself as a proud new store owner, experiencing for the first time everything from business zoning and regulations to inventory trials and tribulations.

He said when he first built Aquatropics from scratch in a retail space on the corner of 36th Avenue and Douglas Drive, he was surrounded by competitors.

“There were eight shops within a five-minute drive of my store, and I plunked my store right down in the middle of all of them. It was whimsical as hell, but I also thought to myself, ‘I’m easy to find. I’m right on the corner, I’m not in a strip mall, and I’ve got the main veins going on. And here I am 25 years later. If you were to draw a circle around the store and go five miles in every direction, we’ve lost exactly 30 shops in my industry (within that area),” he said.

He described the relatively barren atmosphere of the store that persisted while he found his sea legs in operating it. While it has long since become a busy space decked out wall-to-wall in decorations, tanks and merchandise, the store was once sparse and minimally stocked, although that stage is difficult to imagine at this point, since part of the experience of shopping at Aquatropics is the eclectic atmosphere.

Aquatropics’ endurance and longevity can likely be attributed in large part to the store’s unique mode of operation and its specializations, both of which are just as much a reflection of McMenamy’s personality as his self-learned business skills. Eschewing the conventions of customer service, he has devoted most of his energy to personalizing his business.

It’s known for several different specializations, depending on who you talk to. Most of the repeat customers would likely cite the unique selection of tropical fish from Central and South America as the main attraction (“This is the largest selection of freshwater aquatics in the five-state area,” according to McMenamy). Others might point out the vast selections of plants, gravel, corals and other aquarium decor and embellishments. Still others might say McMenamy stands out as a solid source of knowledge and information about the hobby of aquariums, or even someone to get into a technical conversation about aquarium setups with.

He describes many of the hardcore hobbyists as “like gear heads talking about cars,” and said some people even come in with Feng Shui books to maximize the zen art that aquarium ownership can be.

The most common thread that’s noticeable by nearly anyone walking in, however, is the experience of McMenamy himself. Customers of every level of aquarium experience can expect a dose of levity from him alongside the requisite, “How can I help you?” greeting.

“The whole boiling down of what I do here is I try to have fun, keep it light, keep people happy, and make people think,” he said. He might start out with a joke to break the ice and deconstruct the often stiff employee-customer dynamic, and said what often happens next is often a longer conversation unrelated to aquariums at all.

“Obviously, I’ve gone way beyond the idea of just having an aquarium store and trying to sell things. It’s all about communication with people. It’s about making people happy, and that’s kind of what this whole business has done for 25 years. The idea is when you come in here, you don’t have to be here, but when you walk out of here, I want you to feel better than you did when you walked in,” he said.

McMenamy doesn’t even have to be physically present for customers to get a taste of his personality. A female mannequin stands beside a koi pond directly in front of the front entrance with half of her arm stuck down into the water, as though she’s taking a temperature reading while gazing out the window onto Douglas Drive. Although she can’t actually assist them, it doesn’t stop newcomers from asking her for help when they first walk in after mistaking her for a real employee.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people start talking to her when they come in,” he laughed.

Painted fiberglass mermaids hang from the ceilings, some shrouded by fishing nets, each with their own backstory. A small boat hangs near the back with the detached legs from the mannequin attendant from up front sticking out of one end of the boat like someone napping on an invisible lake. Fish ornaments dot the back wall, each one carrying a memory for McMenamy. The store is nostalgic feeling even on the first visit, the soft lighting casts a comforting glow, and the low hum of the aquariums bubbling is disarming.

Aquatropics employee Nellie Thao, 18, organizes a shipment of betta fish.

“This is a comfort zone for a lot of people. I get some folks who come in here, sometimes a couple days a week, just to wander, relax, unwind and whatever they’ve got going on in their head mellows out in here, and then they’ll leave,” he said.

His initial approach to customer relations might catch someone anticipating the straightforward formality of retail off-guard, but for many people it becomes an avenue for an hour or more worth of conversation. He described how many people have walked through the doors after learning difficult news, lost in thought and drawn to the aquarium environment as a way to feel centered, and begun unloading their deepest personal problems on him.

He’s spent countless hours deep in conversation, suddenly finding himself giving advice to someone. He said people have actually come back in years later to tell him he saved their life by giving them the time of day through conversation.

“I really have had some of the best conversations, the best times in here. It is amazing the stories people come in here and tell me. If I’d written down things I’ve heard over the years, I’d have a whole book, a thousand pages. It is incredible the things people want to tell me,” he said.

He believes conversation is becoming a lost art in the fast-paced, high-tech world that is springing up around us. He fears organic interactions that transcend the formal dynamic between customers and employees are disappearing. For McMenamy, it’s all about those relationships.

“I know that it’s pretty easy to talk to me, so I think that folks just come in and find that common ground. How many places do you get to walk in and have a conversation with the guy that works there?” he wondered.

At one point, a longtime customer named Dave, who McMenamy said is there around five times per month, walked through the doors and enthusiastically greeted him with an air of familiarity and comfort.

“Kev, how you doing?”

“Beautiful!” McMenamy shot back.

“Something good’s happening,” Dave observed.

“No drooling! Are you ready for this? I kid you not. In a different area back there, I just came across the original stand for that tank!” McMenamy informed him.

The two discussed the stand for awhile, and soon moved on to bloodworms. Dave offered to buy some of the leftover worms, but McMenamy refused to sell him anything but the fresh ones, which he said were due within the next couple of hours. That exchange exemplified the types of casual, day-to-day interactions that bring people like Dave back to Aquatropics so frequently.

Shortly afterward, another regular customer stopped in for the second time that day, Pat Jacobson, who runs the 76-year-old family-owned Weber’s Greenhouse in Brooklyn Center. She showed McMenamy a photo on her phone of some odd behaviors happening recently in her koi pond while dropping off some hand-knitted dish towels she made for him and his wife. The photo showed her fish gathered in a circle with their heads under the pond’s fountain.

“They do this every night. During the day, they’re not around this thing at all, but at night they congregate around that bubble. Isn’t that crazy?” she said.

“How cool is that?” McMenamy replied, a phrase he uses at the end of a lot of his exchanges, as though to reaffirm a sense of wonderment that constantly surrounds him.

McMenamy said a lot of people ask him which fish he thinks is the coolest, but that in nearly 40 years of expertise, he doesn’t have quite so narrow a focus anymore.

“I mean, on one hand, everything is cool in its own way. Creatures are all unique, they’re all different. Every one of these have a personality. That is totally cool,” he said, next offering a bit more definitive of an answer: “I’ve always been partial to the scavengers, the plecostomus, the algae eaters, the oddball stuff, just because they have more of a history, more of a story.”

He also doesn’t take for granted that people are the only observers.

“I always tell people, you come in here, you never know who’s looking at who. You think you’re looking at the fish. Heck no, they’re looking at you,” he quipped.

At another point, McMenamy instructed his 18-year-old son, who works part-time at the store, to give a customer who purchased a betta fish a care guide called “Life in a Fishbowl.” McMenamy appreciates the parallel between the title of that guide and his own experiences in this occupation, which he said can get extremely repetitive. That was part of the reasoning behind his decision to retire.

“One day I realized I had nothing left to learn,” he said.

He plans to shutter the business rather than pass it off to someone else once he’s retired. Even though he’s had a couple of offers from prospective buyers, he wants to make a clean break and is liquidating the inventory instead. Once he’s down to a minimal amount of merchandise. he has someone lined up to take the rest of it.

“This was an empty room when I first started, so it’s kind of cool to be able to go, ‘I built this from scratch, I built it up into the best store in the five-state area, everybody knows me, I’m sitting here at the top of the ladder.’ In the world of everything, I did my thing, I didn’t do it for anybody else. I did it as a whim. Why can’t I just make it disappear like that as well?” he said. “I’d like to be able to walk away and say, ‘That was cool. For 25 years I was the best of the best, and that’s pretty damn cool.”

Most of all, McMenamy said he owes his customer base his appreciation.

“I’d like to give a true thank you to the client,” he said. “That’s a lot of what I do here. If they find comfort here and they find solace, cool, then that’s a bonus. A lot of what I do here is just a lot of conversation with people. They buy things, they’re happy and all that, but they walk out of here with more than just fish.”