In this postmodern, internet-based hobby world, it seems that the venerable local fish store (“LFS”) is under constant attack. E-tailers, hobbyist’ garage based start-ups, group buys, eBay, Craigslist, and even frag swaps are but a few of the challenges facing the brick-and-mortar fish store. 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. Against this backdrop, it’s time to re-think the LFS and take a look at what it does so well.
First, think about convenience. Fore most hobbyists, the LFS is convenient, close and quick. If you need a pack of frozen food, a replacement filter cartridge, or a length of tubing, you can get it the same day. 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 wrasse swimming right in front of your face!
The LFS will not have every item that we feature here on Reef Builders 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 overhead, and his/her business model is quite different than an online business. That trendy LED light or ultra-hot protein skimmer that’s all the rage on the message boards 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 “specialize” much more easily. It’s just unfair to expect the same from the LFS. 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, 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 message boards 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 Rabbitfish and a Goniopora 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 have in the local stores. 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 Hatchery Manager at a little business in Florida called ORA. He’ll be the first to tell you that it all started at his LFS (Aquarium City). 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-enhanced, Twitter-enabled world, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with other fish geeks. 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 of the hobby alive. When you’re at the LFS, you’re among friends. 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.
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” for the first time. I still enjoy seeing fish that I’ve only read about online, right there in front of me. For many of us, our first brush with the wonders of the ocean was at the LFS, and it launched a passion that changed the direction of our lives.
For the above reasons, and for hundreds more that I didn’t touch on, the LFS must endure. Support your LFS- encourage it, and participate in the culture that it perpetuates. Think about the many benefits that it 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. Long live the LFS!
Until next time