25th Anniversary Bio Part 5: Penguin Place.com 2000 – Present

After 15 years at the Seaport I bid farewell for good while taking a risk that on-line shopping was the way of the future.  I took my lone full-time employee Heather along to Brooklyn as she’d been with me since the Fulton Market days.   I figured I’d not only need some company, but Heather also knew more about computers than me and of course I’d need her help just in case this internet thing actually did take off.  We set up shop in the back room of my Brooklyn loft that summer and as the orders trickled in, and I mean trickle in, we mailed them out and waited.   We only filled on average three or four a day those first couple of lazy months, and most of our modest sales those early days were still via our mail order catalog.  So, we primarily spent that first Summer  in Brooklyn on a sort of  South Street Seaport free holiday.  Finally emancipated from having to be open by 10 a.m. and not closing before 9 p.m., each and every day, 365 days a year for a decade and a half.   Now, it was just sleeping late, renting movies, long lunches,  website updates in my pajamas, and what most people take for granted, finally  having free weekends like the rest of the world.   Slow sales or not, this was the kind of break I had only dreamed of.   Meanwhile in Baltimore the sun had yet to set on the last of the Next Stop…South Pole franchise.  But in September of 1999, three months after the N.Y. store closed my Harborplace lease was finally up and once again my friends and I rented a U-Haul and took my penguins home.  What made the  Brooklyn “Igloo” interesting is that I brought in all the fun penguin fixtures and display pieces from my now closed shops as well as the actual penguin inventory.  Perhaps it was nostalgia or perhaps I was just using what was already available, but even though my new location was on the 5th floor of an industrial building on the Brooklyn waterfront, with no sign or buzzer downstairs to indicate we were there,  Heather and I set the cavernous, windowless room up to look just like one of our stores.  The jewelry was back in their display case, the penguin race was on its icy looking table ready to escalate and slide at a moments notice, dozens of penguin plush sat neatly in rows on the same cabinet shelves that they did at the Seaport and the penguin shaped t-shirt displays were up on the wall.  The only big difference was the larger store storage tables now held packing supplies and boxes, and the table tops in the center of the room that once displayed books and calendars were now free to pack penguins.  Oh yeah, the biggest difference was  we were now in a windowless room on top floor of a 19th century factory building.
The first months sales slowly picked up by Autumn, and the coming holiday season proved reassuring.  Then in 2000 it seemed the digital age had arrived and along with it the world would learn of Penguin-Place.com.  It all started when a friend of mine working for Brooklyn Bridge Magazine wrote a full page article about us, then about a month later myself and Penguin Place found ourselves on the front page of the N.Y. Times Sunday City Section, and a month after that a half page spread in People Magazine. The picture on the Penguin Place Home Page is of Heather and I from the People article.

People Magazine Picture from 2000

That was followed by a couple of t.v. and radio appearances and presto we were not just on the map, but all over it.  With all that free publicity and more people feeling secure about  on-line ordering our holiday season at the turn of the millenium made me feel that leaving the Seaport a year earlier was the right call.   By early Summer of 2000 it was time to decide to commit to another print catalog shoot for the upcoming season, but by then I was secure enough with the web site, and fed up enough with all the time, work and cost that went into my mail order catalog that I dropped it altogether, never to return.   Sadly, it was also around that time that Heather bid farewell Penguin Place and moved to Boise, Idaho for of all things, a boyfriend.     Later that Summer Jeannie came on board the penguin train as my assistant, I got married (not to Jeannie, but to Molly).  Then on the morning of September 11th in full view of myself and the penguins the unthinkable happened.  Not knowing what to do that afternoon after starring at the news all day I checked my e-mail and to my surprise found a few orders.  How could people order on a day like today I thought?  But then I read the messages that went along with the orders.  Most went along the lines of ”it’s my little boys birthday next week and he loves penguins, I know given your location you may have trouble getting these out to us but please let me know if you can.  He’s going to be five, he loves penguins and I’d hate to disappoint him”.   Although the streets were blocked off in my neighborhood for the next few days being we were so close to the East River Bridges, the next day I walked the 3/4 mile distance to the post office with the packages in hand in my own small penguin gesture of not letting the terrorists win and not disappointing little Jimmy.
The holiday season of 2001 was obviously a sober one and Penguin Place did what it could by raising $1000 for the Fireman’s Widows and Orphans Fund through sales of our Penguin Of Liberty shirt.

But, as the years past from that tragedy and we waddled on into the new millennium the future looked promising indeed for Penguin Place.  Molly and I had a little girl named Sophie and then came Rose.   The Penguin Place igloo in turn was chopped in half to accommodate our growing family as we built another bedroom (such is loft living), and in 2007 our original and at this point antiquated web site was traded in for the present (now also antiquated) web site.  In 2007 we also began to feel that our long time live / work loft on Water St. in Brooklyn was in jeopardy as a real estate developer had purchased our building  during the boom and was quickly emptying it of tenants.  The first to go was the commercial businesses on the floors below us, and next came the residential lofts. Being in a unique situation among my neighbors as we not only lived there, but had a few thousand penguins to account for as well we held out as long as we could, but realized by the end of 2008 that we could not fight our new landlord alone, so in 2009 my wife and I decided after coming to terms that we could not duplicate our situation in Brooklyn anywhere in the NY area (or at least in a NY area that we wanted to live)  decided to relocate to Northampton, Mass.  Why Northampton?  Well, it’s a great little city, Molly has family there, our new place is perfect and right downtown, the landlord loves (o.k. likes) penguins and is more than o.k. that I have Penguin Place in his building (and the Igloo actually has windows with lovely views),  the schools are excellent and it’s a wonderful place to raise a family.  Plus,  we’re only 2 1/2 hours from N.Y.C.  which  ironically is just about how long it took for me to go from the Seaport via the A & F trains and  Q-1 bus all the way home to my parents Queens apartment that first night a mere 25 years ago.

Eric with daughter Sophie fielding questions during his penguin talk at Sophie's 1st grade class in October 2009


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