Next Stop…South Pole the beginning

Back on March 15th 1985 a classified ad was taken out on the back page of the Village Voice.  It was a good luck poem for me written by a good friend to mark the grand opening of a crazy, silly, never before tried retail concept. An all penguin business.          It went as follows:

Penguins Here, penguins there, penguins, penguins everywhere.  Penguins for you, penguins for me, penguins as far as the eye can see. So cute and cuddly you’ll lose control, so get on board, Next Stop…South Pole.

The weekly Village Voice came out on Wednesdays and it was on a Wednesday (March 15th) that NSSP was formerly hatched.  Next Stop South Pole was christened as a push cart on the 3rd floor of the Fulton Market Building at South Street Seaport.  My good friend and right hand (flipper) helper Robin had been designing and building the fixtures and interior of the cart in her parents garage since the middle of February.  Robin and I had also spent much of the winter at the NY Toy and Gift Shows at the old NY Coliseum finding inventory to stock our cart.  I remember trying to explain to my grandparents what exactly I intended to do with my penguins.  The senior Bennett’s along with my parents had basically thought I had lost my mind, and simply couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of an all-penguin paraphanalia business.  I also spent many a phone call explaining that it was o.k. that my penguin pushcart was stationary, and was not the same as the push cart my great, great grandfather used to sell pots and pans from on the Lower East Side at the end of the 19th century, and I wouldn’t have to roll my pushcart around lower Manhattan yelling “Penguins For Sale!  Fresh Penguins For Sale”.  Which is what I’m sure they had envisioned.  I remember how much my curious parents and grandparents wanted to be there that very first day, but as I was a little more than anxious myself I insisted that day one would be too hectic and they should come see NSSP  later in the week when everything was set up good and proper.  Honestly, I opened on a Wednesday and fearing the worst I didn’t want my investors there until the weekend.

Eric dressed like a penguin with Lauren, another Seaport employee in May 1985

I say investors because as strange as going into the penguin  business must have seemed to my folks, and as financially strapped as they were, my dad being a self employed wallpaper hanger working on his 3rd heart attack in the midst of a recession, they still fronted most of the budget for the Next Stop South Pole start up.  I guess that says something about my parents and how much (even if they thought it a long shot) they wanted me out of the house.

Robin and I arrived that opening day at 8 a.m. in her station wagon to start setting up for the 11 a.m opening, and spent the next 3 hours frantically piecing together the cart fixtures, displays and inventory.  As we were setting up, Seaport management, other retailers and the occasional early bird tourist or local would walk by, nod, smile, mutter hmmm penguins or everything penguin huh?  At 11 a.m. I donned my Seaport Apron with appropriately enough a big fish (the Seaport’s logo) on it, and nervously set up my tall directors chair, that I was far too jumpy to sit on and waited for my first customer.  In what seemed like 10 and a half hours, but in reality was an hour and a half later I had my first sale.  A box of penguin band aids to a woman who’s high heel shoes did not agree with the Seaports cobblestone streets.  After the retail ice was broken so to speak, the lunch crowd waddled in and by the time my first day was over by 9 p.m.  my apron contained an additional $324.   I put my doors up on the sides of my cart and pad locked them and then rode the F train home to the end of the line at 179th where I boarded the Q1 bus that would deposit me outside my parents building.  The entire 1 1/2 hour journey home I was trying my hardest to suppress a a huge grin.  Remember, this was  after dark on the NYC subway circa 1985, and back then you didn’t want to look too happy on the MTA lest someone would be curious as to why.   When I finally walked into my parents apartment at around 11 pm they were all waiting for me.  My parents, my grandparents, sisters and my downstairs neighbor.  Finally, after nearly two hours I was able to smile.

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