By Sabina Mollot
Anyone considering opening a small business in New York City, or who simply enjoys frequenting them, may want to check out a new graphic novel on the subject, written by the owner of quirky Flatiron home goods store Fishs Eddy.
Julie Gaines, who opened the shop with her then boyfriend, later husband, Dave Lenovitz, 32 years ago, has written the book, published by Workman (a division of Algonquin) and titled Minding the Store with illustration by her son Ben Lenovitz.
Released on November 29, it’s now available at her store on Broadway (along with other book retailers) for $22, and tells the history of the business through its ups and down from the shuttering of American manufactures that made its dishware to, in recent years, growing competition from online retailers. It was the latter problem that prompted Gaines to hire a CEO to help counter dwindling sales, only to end up feeling even more stressed and eventually undermined by his corporate drill sergeant approach to running a store.
“He actually bullied us,” said Gaines. “That’s what this book is about. He terrorized us.”
On the flipside, sales increased during this time. “I think we were reckless; we let our passion for the products take over. So we kept him for a while, but it was a huge stress on our family, on our marriage and our staff.”
The stress, however, gave Gaines the motivation to start chronicling the brand’s journey, and fortunately for the writer, there was already plenty of interest in the story of Fishs Eddy.
Named after an upstate town, the shop originally just sold dishware from flea markets in Pennsylvania and restaurants suppliers on the Bowery that the businesses couldn’t get rid of and were happy to offload for cheap. But Fishs Eddy easily rebranded the old American restaurant ware as vintage, and the shop, while today is now complete with its own dish designs, still has a well-perused vintage section. One of its first successful hunts unearthed dishes that bore the logo of the Helmsley Palace Hotel. With Leona Helmsley having, at that time, reportedly remarked that only “the little people” pay taxes, Fishs Eddy’s owners put up a sign in the window that read, “Now the little people can eat.”
Gaines said over the years she’d been approached by a number of publishers, although they usually wanted her to come up with some sort DIY guide to designing a store. But this didn’t interest her, even though she once studied art. “I can’t DIY anything,” said Gaines. “Do your own lights — that’s not me. I love products and finding things and I have a good eye, but I’m not that crafty.” After coming up with the concept of writing a business memoir, she reached out to Workman Press. It may have helped that when she pitched the story, it wasn’t an attempt at P.R. in that there was never any attempt to hide “the elephant in the room,” the growing struggle against Amazon.
While Gaines has seen continued interest in the store’s merchandise (during the interview on a Monday morning, the store was full of shoppers), what has changed is that some customers will then decide to just look for the items online. They say, “I don’t want to carry it,’” she said. “So the store is turning into eye candy, but nobody’s buying.”
It’s the biggest of a number of obstacles, including higher taxes and hikes in insurance costs, which Gaines didn’t want to pass on to employees and increasing difficulties in sourcing local manufacturers.
But, said Gaines, “This isn’t a pity party. We’re not going to go the way of a lot of small mom-and-pop shops. We’re part of the fabric of New York City. I embrace the challenge because it presses us to be better, more entertaining, funnier, kookier.”
Originally located on Irving Place next to Washington Irving High School, where Gaines was sometimes mistaken by school security as a student playing hooky, Fishs Eddy later moved to the corner of 19th Street and Broadway. There it has been for the last quarter century, immediately identifiable by its snarky signs and often political window displays. One, depicting an oversized image President Trump as a crying baby, based on a balloon flown in protest of his recent visit to London, actually prompted enough threatening phone calls and nasty comments on Instagram that Gaines reluctantly yanked it. (She cited the comfort of her employees). But generally controversies don’t deter Gaines from the store’s particular brand of in-your-face-ness. After the accusations of sexual assault against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a poster of his accuser Christine Blasey Ford, that read, “This is what courage looks like,” was placed in the window.
“We are still engaged in the bigger conversation,” said Gaines.
Once inside, the store is a mix of political and non-political merchandise. There are the dishes and towels with the New York City skyline across them (Gaines’ design, originally scrawled on a napkin), mugs that read “Good morning, a**hole” and a top-selling espresso cup featuring the likeness of President Trump. On the side, the cup reads, “Huuuge,” while on the bottom it reads, “Proudly made in Mexico by Mexicans.” Other popular items include plates with Dolly Parton’s portrait on them and wine glasses with colorful patterns by Charley Harper (one of a few collaborations with outside designers). There’s also an onsite pet portrait studio run by Lenovitz, whose customers have included Jamie Lee Curtis and Brooke Shields. The portraits, painted on cardboard, are in the artist’s signature minimal style and muted color palette that’s also seen in the pages of Minding the Store.
“It’s the visual version of how we speak,” Gaines described the book’s illustrations. “We speak from the heart.”
Indeed, the owner is still outspoken, recently hosting a Q&A panel with Gloria Steinem at the store and hosting a launch for the book Why We March about the Women’s March.
She also hopes to grow the store, by expanding with another location or two, perhaps outside of new York, but said it’s tough to find investors who “get” Fishs Eddy.
“We’re not the new protein bar, the new app,” she said. Additionally, Gaines has remained, over the years, very intent on selling products made stateside whenever possible. “I know I seem liberal, but I’m incredibly sappy, patriotic,” said Gaines. “I believe in American jobs, American manufacturing, public schools.”
In recent years, the brand has included a few collaborations. Recently, actress Amy Sedaris worked with Fishs Eddy on cake sprinkles and designer Todd Oldham created some dishware and towels for the store. Customers can expect to find Oldham as well as Sedaris gift wrapping merchandise for purchases over $20 on Thursday, December 6 at 6 p.m.