Posts Tagged ‘south street seaport’

A 28 Year Old Penguin (Store)!

March 15, 2013

Penguins don’t usually live to age 28 in the wild, but an all-penguin store is another thing!  Yes, 28 years ago today on March 15th 1985, a generation and a head full of hair away, Next Stop…South Pole opened its pushcart doors on the 2nd floor of the old Fulton Market Building at South St. Seaport in New York.  If you need to know, the first penguin item we sold was a pack of penguin band aids to a woman who had very painful shoes.  Within a few months, we moved to a kiosk, and a year later to a permanent store on the newly opened Pier 17 at the Seaport, and from there our long waddle to 2013 continued.  Different locations, mail order catalogs, The Penguin Post Newsletter, moving to something called the internet and a name change to Penguin Place, moving from Brooklyn to Northampton, Mass and now another name change to the more search engine friendly Penguin Gift Shop.

28 years, not bad for a crazy idea of selling nothing but penguins.

Next Stop South Pole and Eric in 1985

Next Stop South Pole and Eric in 1985

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My Proud Penguin Papa

September 21, 2012

They say the male Emperor Penguin plays a very important role in child rearing.  It’s been about 26 years ago to the day that my dad lent me the money to start my very own all-penguin business.  At the time he was recovering from his third heart attack.  He was a self-employed wallpaper hanger and let me tell you having a trio of heart attacks in a ten year period is not exactly ideal for anyone,  and all the more if you’re working for yourself at a physical job.   So when I told him I wanted to open an all-penguin themed pushcart at South St. Seaport he was a little more than taken aback, especially when I mentioned how much it would cost and then without taking a breath proceeded to ask him if he could lend me the four thousand dollars I estimated it would take to start my crazy penguin enterprise. It was no surprise that there were a more than a few skeptics, including my college night school professor whose class How To Start and Maintain Your Own Small Business I enrolled in a few months before I opened my penguin cart.  Most thought I was crazy, foolhardy or worse.  My girlfriend threatened to break up with me if I quit my  “real job” to open a “silly” all Penguin Store. “This cannot be your f*&king career choice, can it?!” She shouted at me one night.  My grandparents would tell their friends that I was going to sell real penguins from a moving pushcart like the pots and pans / dry goods cart that once roamed the streets of their Bronx neighborhood.  But, after the initial shock wore off it took little convincing.  As my dad, who with no strings attached, lent me the money he could so ill afford to part with.  At the time he could barely handle the rigors of his job and had virtually no income ( self-employment meant no unemployment benefits), my mom worked part-time, and I also had two younger sisters at home.  We drove a beat up gas guzzler, and lived in a cramped 2 bedroom, 800 square foot walk-up in Queens.  But, he believed in his son, and the rest as they say is penguin history.

This past Monday, my father, Bernie Bennett, passed away at the age of 79.  Yes, I paid him back, and no, he never grew tired of explaining to people (with a huge smile on his face) what his son did for a living.  Thanks dad. For everything.

Me and my dad at Citi Field last Summer.

Penguin Place 26th Anniversary

March 9, 2012

Is anything more boring than a 26th anniversary?  Perhaps a 27th, but after last years Emperor sized 25th anniversary of Next Stop South Pole / Penguin Place, 26 seems a bit anti-climatic.  Still, 26 is worth celebrating. To start off with for those of you who missed it last year.  Here’s part one of a history of Penguin Place.

In the beginning there was Next Stop South Pole

Way back in October of 1984 Eric Bennett, a young penguin fanatic and recent college grad from Queens N.Y. filled out an application (on a dare) to open a penguin themed pushcart at the recently opened South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan. Knowing a good idea when they saw one the Seaport jumped at the opportunity to be the home of Eric’s all – penguin paraphernalia pushcart, and so on March 15th, 1985 Next Stop South Pole opened its doors for the first time. The first item sold at 11:08 that chilly historic morning was a box of penguin band-aids for $1.95 to a woman with blisters on her feet from a pair of ill fitting high heel shoes. More than likely the fact that the band aids had penguins on them was unimportant to the young lady, she just needed some band aids, but first is first and the rest as they say, is penguin retail history. By 1986 Eric had moved his penguin operation from a push cart to a 285 square foot kiosk (pictured above) in the Seaports historic Fulton Market Building, and then a year later NSSP doubled in size to a proper shop in the Seaports new Pier 17 complex (pictured below). A year later a sister Next Stop South Pole shop opened at the Inner Harbor (Harborplace) complex in Baltimore Maryland, and 1987 also marked the launching the Next Stop South Pole’s first All-Penguin Mail Order Catalog.

As the years went on it became apparent to Eric that lots of people either really liked penguins or knew someone who did, and Next Stop South Pole would not be just another fly (even though penguins can’t) by night operation. The penguin inventory grew from a few dozen penguins on the push cart to 300+ different waddlers, and the NSSP catalog went from a black and white copy machine handout to an 8 page color glossy with a mailing list that spanned the world. On the day of NSSP’s 10th anniversary in 1995 Eric took another unprecedented step (waddle) as he self published the first issue of The Penguin Post, an all-penguin news, information and entertainment publication with no particular parameters, that was intended for like minded penguin lovers and collectors like himself. The newsletter would tackle topics as diverse as penguin themed stamp collecting, penguins in advertising, penguins in music, or major, minor and amature sports teams with penguin logos, as well as stories about actual penguins in the natural world. The Penguin Post would eventually publish 22 issues over the next 6 years, garnering over a 1,000 subscribers on every continent (including Antarctica). Sadly, it become a victim of it’s own success, as the Post simply became too big for Eric to continue publishing in a print edition. “As much as I loved writing The Post, the writing part was easy but between the cost of printing, and the time it took for folding, collating, stuffing the envelopes, addressing, stamping, then mailing, and keeping up with subscriptions, it was simply too huge a job for a one man operation. Sadly, in 2002 Eric ceased publication of the Post, but he has vowed to resume publishing the Penguin Post on-line, and if you waddle over the Penguin Post Section of this website, you’ll be happy to see The Penguin Post On-Line.

In 1997 a new era literally began for Next Stop South Pole with the launching of our Penguin Place website. Now with a flipper on the pulse of the burgeoning virtual penguin world, the combination of the positive on-line response with rising rents at the Seaport led Eric to waddle in the direction of going exclusively on-line. The NYC Next Stop South Pole finally closed it doors in June of 1999, and the Baltimore shop followed suit a year later. Eric then moved his entire penguin rookery to its present day location, a fifth floor 900 square foot loft in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood overlooking the Manhattan Bridge that is affectionately known as “The Igloo”. In 2008 the Penguin Place website was finally revamped, and today Eric is assisted part-time by his two daughters Sophie and Rose who also think penguins are cool. On June 1st 2008, Eric, his family and all of Penguin Place waddled 150 north to beautiful Northampton, Mass.

Penguin Place Mach 5 or 6, or maybe 7

April 28, 2011

Everyone loves to complain.  Unless you’re Jimmy Stewart or Mother Teresa it’s one of the things we do best as a species, and I’m sure you’re very good at it.   For me, I got lots to complain about, be it the Mets or my three-year-old daughter peeing on the carpet this morning.  But, on a professional level regarding Penguin Place I’ve been pretty fortunate.  I love penguins, and how many people get to make a living at what they love?  If you’re curious, you can see the story of Penguin Place in this link.  About 25 years ago I began my penguin odyssey in a little shop in downtown N.Y. at South St. Seaport, and obviously as with everything in life there were some bumps along the way, but all in all, no major complaints.  I left my brick and mortar penguin existence about 10 years ago  dedicating myself to Penguin-Place.com  as my full time gig.   I ran it out of a windowless, former art studio attached to my downtown Brooklyn loft.  No complaints there.  Then about 5 years ago I realized I needed a new, improved, upgraded version of PP.com as it been about the same site for 8 years or so,  and the world of on-line retail was passing me by at warp speed.   The only people I had ever worked with regarding Penguin Place.com were the folks who designed and maintained my site since its inception way back in 1997.   So, I naturally went to them for the upgrade.  Sure thing, they said.  We can do this for you and then some.  Unfortunately, there had been lots of turnover at this company, and all the folks who worked with the initial PP.com start-up were gone.  The company had downsized lots, and my new designer was working on his first commercial website (found this out after the fact). Not good.  Over budget, and way behind schedule it launched months late, with an iceberg of problems at the worst possible time of the year.  Right at the beginning of the holiday season.  It was a disaster, and it appeared that my designer, who was in way over his head when it came to commercial website construction, was incapable of fixing this.  In a panic as October was turning in November I desperately searched for someone, some company who could fix this and fast, and through a friend I found a west coast developer that specialized with Joomla based websites (which is what I had).   They came to my rescue, patched things up in short order, and in turn gained my trust and gratitude.   All good for the time being, but PP.com site still needed an upgrade, a new look and some big time changes.  My  west coast peeps now had my confidence  as they helped me in my hour of need, and they impressed me with their organizational skills, cool tech lingo and the multiple on-line teleconference meetings.  They seemed committed and were taking the time to put an upgrade plan together.   But, as one deadline after another came and went, the Penguin-Place.com upgrade never came.  Weeks, turned into months and then the months turned into, well you get the picture.  Then this fall, with traffic and sales down, yet another holiday season approaching, and all talk, no action coming from my web developer, I had a feeling no changes were going to happen and was desperate once again.  Because of the antiquated look and feel of Penguin Place, sales were down and the future looked bleak.  So, fed up with all the delays and broken promises, I turned to a local web designer who I liked and talked a good talk. She was enthusiastic and had great ideas.  But, in the end she turned out to be a wonderful designer, with bad communication skills, and as was the case of my original designer back in N.Y.  she also did not have the skills to put together a commercial website, and without it sales and traffic continued to drop.  The check out page / shopping cart, and many nuanced, yet crucial customer service aspects of Penguin Place were still lacking. Some aspects of the website were even worse than before.  I was frustrated beyond words, as I’m sure many of my long time customers were as they tried to navigate the many speed bumps and dead ends that they faced on penguin place.  We limped through this holiday season, and I knew I needed to find a professional web design company to turn this around once and for all.  My  Penguin Place Igloo needed to be righted.  After interviewing a half dozen companies around the world, in the end I choose a local company called Left Click right here in my adopted home town of Northampton.   In fact their office is only about 150 feet from Penguin Place.  Let, me say first off  they’ve been great. The first step to making Penguin Place whole again was not cosmetic, but only to get penguin place to act and interact like a 21st century commercial website.  Including all the things shoppers take for granted. Get the check out page and shopping cart to work properly, easy customer login,  install  multi-tiered shipping options in plain sight on the check out page, a home page slide show, working pagination arrows (that means you can go from one page to the next within a category), customer service friendly e-mail confirmations and working links, etc.  All the basics.  Next came the cosmetic changes and adding things like customer wish lists and even a penguin birthday club, which takes us to our new look PP.com which I’m happy to say we re-launched a few days ago. All this they did within budget and on time.  Great communication, easy to reach, nice people, they know what their doing, good listeners, with good ideas who actually act like they care. And all the time right next door.  So, what I’m saying is as easy as it is to complain, I wanted to say thanks to Left Click.  I wish Penguin Place had found you sooner.

Penguin Place’s Head Penguin Eric Bennett Interviewed for AOL

August 18, 2010

Earlier this Summer the founder and Head Penguin of Penguin Place was interviewed for AOL’s new on-line business magazine about the history and philosophy behind Penguin Place. Here’s the link to the interview
http://smallbusiness.aol.com/2010/08/10/penguin-places-eric-bennett-a-long-march-to-success/

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

March 14, 2010

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!

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

March 7, 2010

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.

Next Stop…The Early Years

March 4, 2010

Next Stop...South Pole circa Spring 1985

That Spring and Summer of 1985 for Next Stop…South Pole at the Seaport was an exciting and fun time.  It appeared that I had pulled off the improbable and was making a  go of my all-penguin concept to the stunned disbelief of friends and family alike.   It’s hard to believe this a quarter century later, but the first lease I signed with the Seaport was only for two weeks.  Apparently that was the standard agreement one could sign through the Seaport pushcart program back then for rookie businesses.  This way if your concept is a dud (and there were plenty of those) or the Seaport didn’t like you (and there were plenty of those) then it makes the parting of the ways that much  more palatable for everyone. I recall that after first pitching the all-penguin idea to the Seaport  how enthusiastic they were with my concept, and then how taken aback I was when they said welcome to the Seaport and offered me only a two week lease.  After my initial shock, I thought that might be for the best in case I fell flat on my face and people didn’t like penguins as much as I assumed (hoped) they did.   Since I only had a couple of weeks lease, I  hadn’t much need for an inventory supply, not that it would have been large anyway given my budget and space constraints.  Being new to the penguin (or any) business I had no idea what would be a big seller or how much of anything to stock, and being a pushcart, not much room for storage either, so Robin and I made our best guess estimates and for the most part our instincts were spot on.  Our initial push cart carried less than 50 different penguin items, compared to the nearly 600 in our line today.  The Seaport did provide us with a small storage closet, which came in handy as my next storage option was my parents living room.   Another good call was opening at the Seaport back in the mid 80’s.  Those were the halcyon days for the Seaport and their fledgling festive marketplace concept.  NYC was obviously big time, but not the tourist Mecca it is today,  even Time Square back then resembled more like the Time Square from the film Taxi Driver than the Disney theme store it’s become since the mid 90’s.  The Seaport was a new oasis in a city that needed to reclaim its waterfront and its pride as it slowly made its way back from the financial crisis of the 70’s. New Yorkers and tourists alike couldn’t get enough of the Seaport those first few years, and it was a perfect fit for us.  The Seaports  pushcart  program even had their own management team back then headed by Gerry Hogarty who I first pitched the all penguin concept to back in October 1984, Jerry not only greeted it enthusiastically from the get go, but realizing I was a novice in the world of retail he mentored me in a big way through those early days.  I’m not sure how easy it would have been without him or my good friend Robin.  As that first Spring turned to Summer other pushcarts and their revolving two week leases came and went, and by late August Gerry invited Next Stop South Pole  to be one of the fledgling kiosks that the Seaport had been constructing on the north end of the building’s 2nd floor.  All in all there were about 8 – 10 kiosks ranging in size from 200 to 800 square feet.  Obviously, the bigger the kiosk, the larger the rent, and as I was still living with my folks in Queens and paying back some penguin start-up loans I choose one of the smaller ones.  Robin and I designed and built our first “penguin igloo” and on September 15th (a mere six month after I first opened) we moved into our first little store.  I still had not hired anyone other than Robin who worked part-time with me on weekends when it was busiest, other than that I manned the penguin store 7 days a week from 11 am to 9 pm.

First kiosk in 1985 with Eric, Aunt Susan, Mom and Cousin Stephen

But, with the kiosk I had my own phone, display case, store sign, shelves, address for mail and most importantly a gate I could close when I had to go to the bathroom.  I also realize around that time that most of my penguin loving customers were tourists and once they visited NY and the Seaport I might not ever see them again, so I quickly began to self publish on a copy machine my first all-penguin mail order catalog. The South Pole definitely not heading south, and as I headed to my first holiday season I finally moved out of my parents apartment and found a share with some friends who also worked at the Seaport.    Next Stop…Baltimore

1985 flier to announce our moving to a kiosk and our new "Complete Penguin Catalogue". For $1 and a stamped self addressed envelope.

Next Stop…South Pole the beginning

March 3, 2010

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.