25th Anniversary Bio Part 4: Next Stop…Penguin Place

Penguin kitchen display in our Pier 17 store.

The early 90’s were an interesting time of transition and uncertainty for NSSP after we were “exiled” to the Fulton Market Building.  It was apparent to me that the new management team at the Seaport  were looking in a different direction than leasing to the unique, small businesses that were part of the Seaports early years, and the new direction included chain stores like The Gap, Sharper Image and Victoria Secret and not mom and pops like me.  The original, historic Fulton Market building was still open, but just barely, with nearly half of it empty and maybe about 25% of the foot traffic of Pier 17,  yet between our loyal customers who sought us out and our mail order catalog we were able to hang in there.    It was during this Seaport Sibera period that drove me to search for ways to promote NSSP internally as well as externally.  I began to emphasis the mail order penguin catalog more and more, and first thought of the concept of an all penguin lovers newsletter that would be neither a nature publication nor a means to sell penguin products, but a newsletter for folks who were just interested in all things penguins.   Ironically, between 1992 and 1995 partly because of my  aggressive self promotion and perhaps  the world taking  notice of our stubborn adherence to our all penguin concept, Next Stop South Pole got in more press via print, radio and television than any three year period before or since.  Ironically, though stuck in the second division of the complex, the Seaport management team used us in promotional ads and would even tell perspective tenants “if an all-penguin store can make it here, you can too.”

1994 wall of plush penguins in our final Fulton Market Building shop.

Then, after three long years in 1995 the Seaport finally offered me a space back on the Pier 17.  It was a small 210 square foot shop on the first floor of the Pier and of course I jumped at it.   It was less than half the size of the shop I had been occupying in the Fulton Market as well as our originally Pier 17 space, but I had done my time and proved to management that the all-penguin concept could survive even the worst of locations at the Seaport.  I moved into the small shop in early 1995 but because of the space and storage limitations I would use the back room of my loft space on the Brooklyn waterfront for storage.  On  March 15th of ’95 to celebrate the opening of the new store as well the 10th Anniversary of NSSP we had a Penguin Party at the bar next door to our new location.  About 75 people attended including family, friends and loyal customers, and after some beverages were consumed we even had a spirited Best Waddle contest.  The anniversary also gave me occasion to debut the first issue of The Penguin Post newsletter I sold for .75¢ an issue and yearly subscriptions for $5.00 that included four issues annually.  The Post went on to publish quarterly for the next 7 years, churning out 29 issues until with almost 1,200 subscribers, but eventually  it became too much and too expensive for me to do with a staff of one.  Especially a married with children staff of one.  Another major penguin turning point came in 1997 when at the urging of a friend who was a video game designer helped me develop and launch Penguin-Place.com.  Initially as a simple non interactive home page, but within a few months our Penguin Place on-line catalog was up and running.  On-line shopping was obviously in its infancy back then and most people who found us via the internet either called or mailed in their orders, but the internet experiment had begun and there was no waddling back.

The diminutive 210 square foot NSSP shop on Pier 17 1995-1999

By 1998, about a third of our gross revenue was via print or on-line ordering and given our diminutive retail space our shop was at times overflowing with boxes waiting to be picked up by UPS. (especially during the holiday season), and many an afternoon saw these boxes spill out into the hallway adjacent our shop.  Seaport management was not pleased, and the only alternative was to shuttle inventory to my loft just on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge more and more for storage , shipping and receiving.  The good thing about my loft was it was in  an old factory building that was zoned for both commercial and residential use.  The first four floors were still used for light manufacturing and other businesses and the top floor was residential and artist lofts.  I wasn’t an artist, but the former tenant was and he had built a very large 600 square foot windowless room for his sculpture studio in the rear of my space, and this room was rapidly transforming into my Penguin Place Igloo.    Soon my three year lease for my first floor Seaport space would expire  and the latest Seaport management team began negotiations by telling me that they had a perspective tenant interested in my space, and that this un-named entity was willing to pay double the rent that I was paying.  At that point I was already on the fence about whether I should stay on at the Seaport at my present rent.  With customer traffic down and more and more of my sales coming via the web site the decision to leave was becoming easier.   I told the Seaport that I hoped they were serious about this mystery tenant because I could not match their offer.  In fact I explained, any rent increase was out of the question if they wanted to retain the penguin shop.  They called what they thought was my bluff and stood by their demand for a huge rent increase, making my decision to leave that much more of a no brainer.  On May 31st I rented a U-Haul and with the help of a few friends we piled the penguins and some store fixtures in the back, and moved it all to the Brooklyn side of the river. There would be no looking back, so after 15 years Next Stop…South Pole was no more and thus began Penguin-Place.com

Since 1985 and beyond, the timeless Playful Penguin Race!


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