What makes a store a landmark? This isn’t a rhetorical question; amid discussions of “retail blight” and a City Council bill that intends to provide commercial business owners some rental protection, it’s hard not to think of how the shops, bars, and restaurants in a certain area contribute to that neighborhood’s character.
But it’s also a nerve-wracking time for small businesses in New York City: Jeremiah Moss’s Vanishing New York provides a moving elegy for a number of bygone spaces, and the recent news that Soho bookstore McNally Jackson would be relocating after a massive rent increase has served as an unsettling microcosm of a larger issue.
Into this heated debate comes an instructive graphic novel: Minding the Store: A Big Story About a Small Business (Algonquin Books, $21.95). The author is Julie Gaines, the co-founder of Fishs Eddy, that most charming of New York City retailers, offering distinctive tableware, mugs, tote bags, glasses, and countless other glorious oddities. Illustration duties were handled by her son Ben Lenovitz, who also has a sideline in pet portraiture.
The story Gaines tells in Minding the Store is a powerful one, whether you’re haunted by tales of retailers priced out of neighborhoods or simply enraptured by underdog stories. It’s the narrative of how she and her husband David Lenovitz got the idea for Fishs Eddy on a trip in upstate New York, launched the store in 1986, and survived various ups and downs—from troubled expansions to tensions within the company to a shifting landscape within New York City itself.
Gaines says that Minding the Store began its life as a very different project—something closer in tone to “a DIY book,” more focused around making things than the story of selling them. In her own telling, she told publisher Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (itself a division of Manhattan-based Workman Publishing) that she wanted to go a different route. She recalls telling them, “I’m not a DIY person. But I do have a story, because I’ve had a store for over 30 years in a very populated area of Manhattan. You know, we’ve been in the shadow of the big box retailers that have taken over, and now Amazon, which has its own issues.”
For Gaines, focusing on the store and opting for a collaborative approach was another way to echo the ethos of Fishs Eddy. “I’m not a classic merchandiser or designer or anything,” she says. “So everything’s just very much out of our heart. And we’re a team. I’m not gonna take credit for anything here, by the way. Nothing. We are a team.”
In talking with Gaines, there’s another solid reason for chronicling the unlikely saga of Fishs Eddy amidst turmoil in the world of retail and real estate. “I think writing the book saved me a lot of money,” she says, “because it was either that or a lot of therapy.”
One element of Minding the Store that resonates particularly in the era of massive retail rent increases is how Fishs Eddy has avoided this: they own their space. “We took every single penny we had, and then some,” Gaines recalls. “Borrowed from everybody. Because we knew we’d have to leave. Because they were going to quadruple the rent, because they could.”
Still, Gaines is clear that this isn’t a magic bullet for the successful operation of a small business. “Now our challenge is paying to support this space,” she says. “So, we look at it like just rent. It’s still rent for us. Sure, we can stay. But we still have a very hefty nut.”
The changes in New York retail have still caused Gaines plenty of emotional pain as both a business owner and an admirer of the ecosystem here. “One of the hardest days for me as a retailer was when Pearl Paint closed,” she says, recalling its 2014 closure. “I used to go there just to smell the turpentine. I’m not kidding. I’m an art store junkie. I love art stores. Not to be confused with craft stores.”
There are other narrative threads in Minding the Store that take on more and more resonance as the narrative moves towards the present day. Midway through the book, Gaines writes about a period in the 1990s when “many domestic ceramic manufacturers were closing their doors for good,” signaling a massive shift in the fortunes of American industry.
When I ask Gaines whether there was a point when she noticed it, her response is spot-on. “When I went gray, basically,” she says. “Globalization like cost me my hair color.” It should be noted here that Gaines has a way with a witty phrase; it’s not altogether surprising that a section late in the book focuses on her forays into stand-up comedy. The blend of Gaines’s candor and Lenovitz’s illustrations gives the book a distinctive personality, not unlike the aesthetic cultivated by Fishs Eddy’s frequent collaborations with designers.
And personality goes a long way. Minding the Store notes several of Fishs Eddy’s distinctive store window displays, including one satirizing the classist statements of imprisoned hotel magnate Leona Helmsley. Gaines also brought up a moment years ago when Macy’s emulated the design of their Skyline line of plates, which prompted a cutting response in the form of a window display. “We did a whole window that said, ‘Fishs Eddy: Where Macy’s shops for ideas,’” Gaines recalls.
Among the most crucial scenes in Minding the Store is one where Gaines discovers a location for rent in the Union Square area. (The store was already open at that point elsewhere in Manhattan.) “Despite the phone calls from our mothers telling us how the Union Square area would never amount to anything, we signed the lease,” she writes. The subsequent growth of that neighborhood seems to have settled that debate pretty soundly.
That doesn’t mean that it’s a retail utopia, however. “The neighborhood’s changed in the last year or two,” says Gaines. “It’s taken a step back, and there’s a lot of stores for rent.” Still, she remains optimistic. “I think it’s gonna go back because, again, I still believe in retail,” she says. ”I still think people need to see, and touch, and feel, and communicate.”
Gaines has also noticed an increase in the number of tourists shopping there. “We also do things that are very in the moment,” says Gaines, citing Hamilton-inspired dueling shot glasses and a “Justin Trudeau 2020” mug as two examples. But she’s also happy with the store’s place in the community. “Some of my proudest moments are when we were really serving as a community bulletin board,” she notes.
After interviewing Gaines at her office on the space’s second floor, I found myself purchasing a host of items in the store below; a pair of cocktail glasses utilizing Charley Harper’s bird illustrations for myself, as well as a few gifts for family members, with some additional notes taken for the upcoming holidays. That in and of itself speaks to Fishs Eddy’s appeal: In an age where retailing algorithms are on the rise, it’s a glorious reminder of the joys that can arise from browsing, when the thing you didn’t know you need is just around the corner.