Don Robinette used to sell aquariums from his store in Duluth. But last March, he closed up shop to run the business from home and turn his attention to clients who want elaborate, custom-made aquariums. “It’s better to focus on high-end clients,” he said.
Fish tanks, blue and entrancing, have long been decorative staples in doctors’ waiting rooms, restaurants and corporate offices. But in the Atlanta area, specialty aquarium sellers say the market for high-end tanks has begun to grow, in large part because of the popularity of the Georgia Aquarium. “They go down there and they get inspired to get a tank,” said Kevin Rogers, manager of Marine Fish & Reef in east Cobb County. “The Georgia Aquarium definitely helps us out business-wise.” People usually start with smaller tanks, Rogers said, but may move to high-end aquariums as they become familiar with fish. These aquariums, which can hold hundreds of gallons of water, are often custom-made to match furniture and are loaded with features â€” special lighting for corals, themed decorations and even computers that alert maintenance workers if the water’s pH drops.
It’s not a cheap hobby. An empty tank can cost $5,000 on its own. Add to that the cost of fish, tank decoration, lighting, special features and maintenance, and you can arrive at a total of more than $15,000. The most exotic fish can cost up to $500, and seahorses, at 7 inches tall, can run about $800 each. But patrons say it’s worth the price.
“Fish tanks create a certain ambience of serenity and peace, and we wanted to have that,” said Betty Jo Bolin, office manager for North Fulton Family Medicine. “It gives the patients something to look at rather than the bare walls.”
The business has ordered large aquariums for three of its practices â€” in Alpharetta, Johns Creek and Cumming. A fourth practice, in Woodstock, doesn’t have one only because its office is too small.
Robinette, whose business is called Under the Wave, likens large aquariums to flat-screen televisions of the same size. He said 75 percent of his clientele is male.
“Bigger aquariums are seen as a prestigious thing to have,” he said. “It’s a status symbol. It’s like, ‘My TV is bigger than your TV.’ ”
Now that he’s focusing on custom tanks that can hold dozens of exotic fish, his job calls for him to play interior decorator and fish psychologist as well as salesman. “It can be complex and frustrating, but I like the challenge,” he said.
Robinette’s fascination with marine life began at age 15, he said, when he started ditching school to work at a local pet store. By now, the 39-year-old is so well-versed in the personalities of fish species that he can say off the top of his head which combinations will produce a harmonious tank.
But Robinette’s real claim to fame is the themes he designs for each tank. He’s particularly proud of one that features a silver plastic plane, bought at Toys “R” Us, sunk nose-first into the pebbled floor. In another, fish flutter between Roman-style columns.
For high-end customers, tank style matters almost as much as the choice of fish. Atlanta-based Jacoby Development Inc., for instance, designed their latest office around a 200-gallon fish tank. Vice President Mitchell Jacoby, 66, said each of the four offices the company has inhabited over the past 20 years has had a different aquarium, each bigger than the last.
“We’re very enamored with it,” he said. “It’s soothing and it’s a conversation piece. It gets people to focus on something besides business, which can be boring.”
For him and his brother James, the company’s owner, the aquariums are a reminder of their many diving adventures and time in the Navy. In total, all four aquariums have cost close to $25,000, he estimated, and maintenance has amounted to $10,000 over that time.
But Mitchell Jacoby and his brother, who has his own tank at his Dunwoody home, say the benefits far outweigh the cost. He likened the tank in his office to a fireplace â€” a pleasant distraction from everyday life.
“It is an expense, but we never thought real hard about it,” he said. “It’s just something we all love.”