Penguin Place History Part 3: Next Stop…Baltimore, The World and Back Again

This is part 3 of our 25th Anniversary history of Next Stop…South Pole / Penguin Place.

By early 1987 Next Stop…South Pole had in a year and a half gone from a push cart with a two week lease to a 200 square foot kiosk to a 400 square foot kiosk, and now we were  being actively recruited by Rouse Corp. execs from around the country.  Rouse was the developer behind the successful Faneuil Hall / Quincy Marketplace in Boston and the South St. Seaport in NY and were now expanding the Festive Marketplace concept to seaports, harbors and river towns around the country.  NSSP was approached by reps from Miami, Detroit, Washington D.C. , St. Louis, Baltimore, Seattle and San Francisco.  Apparently, these new Rouse locations were looking for shops who’s concept was working within such a retail  environment.  Of course I was flattered and enjoyed all the attention, but considering I was still learning on the job and new to the business world I decided to take a more conservative and pragmatic approach.  First, I opted to go from a black and white, xerox mail order penguin catalog to a more professional (anything would have been more professional) glossy color version.  By now, my penguin inventory was around 200 items and I decided to lay the catalog out in four pages, and dividing the pages in half giving me 8 separate categories. Plush, Penguinware, Jewelry, Houseware, Holiday, etc.  We also began keeping a sign up for a mailing list book next to the register. It was pre-computer days, so everything was done by hand.  Just mailing a couple of thousand catalogs could take a week.   Next, we jumped at the opportunity to move from our kiosk in the Fulton Market Building to the brand new Pier 17 complex the Seaport was building on the East River.  After some negotiation we leased a 600 square foot store on the 3rd floor that would for me become the high point of NSSP’s tenure at the Seaport.  With about 6 months lead time Robin and I  designed the penguin store that would come about as close (within our limited budget) to what I had envisioned my hypothetical penguin store would look like years earlier.  The store would take on the feel of a 1950’s sitcom home, but in our version of the kitchen our retro fridge, shelves and pantry would be filled with all sorts of kitchen penguin goodies.  On a chair at the table a giant plush penguin sat while wearing a penguin apron,  his penguin plate was  filled with fake rubber  fish, and on the table would be all the items a proper penguin kitchen needed,  penguin salt & pepper shakers, napkins, dish towels, pot holders, tea pots, over mitts, etc. The same look and feel for the bathroom, living room, bedroom etc. BTW, I still had that same vintage  fridge until this past June when we moved, and I still have the old 1950’s tv that was in our mock “Penguin Father Knows Best” living room that played nothing but penguin nature, Tennessee Tuxedo and Chilly Willy VHS tapes, and it still works.  Our secret for the tv was we gutted the inside of an old television and put in a new monitor.  That’s how a 1950’s black and white tv could play video’s in color.

Eric outside the Pengun House in Osaka August 1990. It started out as a virtual clone of the NSSP in N.Y.C.

At the same time I decided to take up one of the Rouse recruiters from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on expanding, and  in the summer of 1988 I opened a small NSSP shop at the Harbor Place in Baltimore. I was very impressed with their management team and the Inner Harbor in general.  Baltimore was only about 3 hours from NY and besides I had a girlfriend going to Georgetown in D.C..    Looking back, the late 80’s and early 90’s was undoubtedly the golden age of Next Stop…South Pole as a retail store.  Both the Seaport and Harborplace were unsurpassed as tourist destinations in NY and Baltimore and it was always fun being there.   Then in 1990 I was approached by a Japanese group from Osaka who were intrigued with my all-penguin concept.  They informed me that they wanted to open their own store called Penguin House in a mall  next to the Osaka Ring of Fire Aquarium.  After some initial translator issues I got the idea that they didn’t want me to run, manage or design the store. In fact they didn’t want me to do much of anything,  but they did want me to “consult” on the initial inventory and most of all go to Osaka as the American spokesman for the store and the all penguin concept.  Apparently, making it appear like an American store and concept was worth a million dollars in publicity for them.  So in August of 1990 myself and my Baltimore manager Patty Smith were flown to Japan for a series of interviews, meetings and press conferences.  It wasn’t our store, but we were treated and were suppose to act like it was.  It was all quite a surreal, interesting and very fun experience.
By early 1992 my Baltimore shop had expanded from a cramped 250 sf kiosk to one about double the size just down the hall in the Light St. Pavilion, but ironically around that same time an ill wind of change began to blow at the Seaport.  The original management team I had worked with since the beginning were now just about all gone and the Seaport was beginning to lose its luster.  The city was changing, Times Square, Central Park, Greenwich Village were all safer, cleaner and more tourist friendly than in a long time.  No longer was the Seaport such an oasis in the city.  Plus, although still a destination the novelty and had worn off.  Many of the original Seaport tenants were also gone and turnover was becoming epidemic.  The new management team were reacting to these changes with mostly mixed or poor results as many of the changes were short term strategies and lacked continuity and vision.  The new breed of tenants the Seaport were interested in were not the unique or had anything to do with  New York or Seaport as they began to lease to chain stores for quick fixes to fill empty spaces and pay the high rents.  But, of these stores the Seaport had, the less interesting a draw it became.  Then in the Spring of 1992 the new Seaport paid us a visit as management told me that NSSP  was being replaced by of all things a Nintendo Store. I bitched and screamed.  Told them they were being short sighted.  But, they said Nintendo liked my location and they were in and I was out.  I had about three months to leave and eventually was offered a comparable size place not on Pier 17, but back in the old Fulton Market Building.  Since its completion in 1988  Pier 17 had become jewel of the Seaport complex and reduced the original Fulton Market Building to an obsolete also ran.  It’s where stores went to die.  But, with little or no choice we waddled on over hoping that loyal customers and our mail order catalog could keep us going until Seaport management came to their senses.  Robin who had been with me since the beginning decided it was time to move on and pursue her career in the theater, so in the Fall of 1992 I grudgingly moved back to the “reservation” and began to do my time in Fulton Market purgatory.

Eric (on left) and friend contemplate the next move for NSSP after being moved back to the Fulton Market Building in the Fall of 92.

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