Given that it was just my 50th birthday and we’re only a few months away from the 25th Anniversary of Penguin Place, I’ve been waddling down memory lane and mining some classic penguin press and stories from the past. This one is from 10 years ago and appeared in the front page o the Sunday NY Times City Section.

By Tara Bahrampour

NEGOTIATING her way past blocks of industrial warehouses, up a graffiti-covered stairwell and through an iron door that clangs shut behind her, the mother presents her plea.

”Remember I asked you about a penguin menorah?”

”Yeah,” comes the answer. ”I found one. But it had penguins and polar bears on it.”

”That’s fine,” she says excitedly. ”Did you get it for me?”

”No. I’m firmly opposed to penguins and polar bears together.”

Thus speaks Penguin Eric, emperor of a rarefied realm who tolerates no sloppiness when it comes to his favorite bird. Penguins live at the South Pole, polar bears at the North. As a purveyor of penguin paraphernalia around the globe, publisher of an international penguin newsletter, and guru for penguin lovers worldwide, it is up to him to uphold propriety.

It’s a big responsibility, but Penguin Eric, 39, whose real name is Eric Bennett, performs his duties happily. Each morning he wakes up in his spacious loft on Water Street in Dumbo, the artsy Brooklyn neighborhood down under the Manhattan bridge overpass, and steps behind a curtain. On the other side is the Igloo, a 900-square-foot wall-to-wall repository of plush stuffed penguins, penguin posters, inflatable penguins, penguin hockey jerseys, penguin potholders, beach towels, videos and key chains. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Bennett and his full-time assistant, Penguin Heather (Heather Stull), 28, are constantly on the alert for anything that comes in penguin, frequently updating their catalogue and Web site.

Growing up in Queens Village, Mr. Bennett said, he was ”pretty normal” until, as a history major at Queens College, he started dating a woman who ”liked ballet, Cape Cod and penguins.” But though he had caught the fever, filling his room with renditions of the black-and-white Antarctic bird, he didn’t consider making a career out of them until he visited an outdoor market in Boston one day in 1984.

”I was walking past all these themed pushcarts — pigs, Hello Kitty, rubber stamps — and I suddenly thought, ‘If I did a penguin one it would be cuter than any of them,’ ” he said.

Back in New York, he filled out a vendor application at the South Street Seaport, and to his surprise, he said, it was immediately accepted. Mr. Bennett moved back in with his parents, sold his car and scraped together $4,000 for a pushcart rental, fixtures and two weeks’ worth of inventory.

”My parents thought I was nuts,” he said. ”My grandparents didn’t understand. They thought I was selling real penguins.”

Within months, Mr. Bennett’s Next Stop . . . South Pole had expanded into a store in the Seaport, and he soon branched out to locations in Baltimore, Miami, Los Angeles, Colorado Springs and Washington. Eventually, he said, he realized that ”five more businesses meant 20 times more problems with staff and inventory.” Only his Baltimore outpost remains.

As for his New York business, Mr. Bennett said he decided it was time to migrate in June 1998, when he was told that his Seaport store rent would be doubling. He closed down his shop and turned his attention to the mail-order Web site, Penguin Place (, which he had started three years earlier. Last year, he said, his business had sales of $350,000. This year, he said he expected a significant increase thanks to on-line sales, which he said have tripled in the last 12 months.

Still, skeptics might wonder if such a specific niche is dependable over the long run. It’s a delicate balance, Mr. Bennett said. Penguins must be in demand, but not too much. ”Penguins are cute, people like penguins, but if penguins get too popular, like if Macy’s started carrying them . . . .” He trailed off, unwilling to go there.

Mr. Bennett said his customers spanned national and cultural divides. ”We have a penguin-collecting rabbi and a penguin-collecting priest,” he said. ”We have really rich people on Park Avenue with collections insured in the six figures, antique crystal penguins and stuff like that.”

Perhaps Mr. Bennett’s strangest customer to date is a man known as Monsieur Pingouin, who goes around his small village in Belgium eating sardines and dressing like a penguin. ”He’s decided he’s metamorphosing into a penguin,” he said. ”He wants to be buried in his penguin costume, and he wants to donate his corpse to science so they can study how much of his body is actually penguin.”

But most of his clientele, he said, consists of ”middle-class, regular people.” Some come from as far away as Australia and New Zealand to load up on penguinalia. For others, Mr. Bennett’s living room, lined with antique cameras and vintage records, functions as a sort of penguin hearth where stories are exchanged.

Michael Ringler, 31, an actor and collector from Austin, Tex., who was visiting recently, tried to explain the attraction. ”Penguins are so mild, so friendly,” he said. ”They’re like someone from Iowa in the big city. There’s just a charm and an innocence about them.”

The menorah seeker, Belline Manopla, 36, a customer for 11 years, said she thought her penguin habit had a positive effect on her two toddlers. ”If you bring children to appreciate one particular subject, they learn a lot more quickly,” she said. ”My kids can quote facts about penguins.”

”My husband thinks I’m crazy,” she added, before turning to check out the rows of stuffed penguins awaiting new homes.


Young Shopper "Benno" at the Bklyn Penguin Place Loft in 2008