Signs that you're a fish retailer

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What defines an aquatic retailer? Nathan Hill takes a look at some of the skills and habits frequently picked up by those in the trade.

You’ve probably noticed that I tend to switch my allegiances faster than a politician sniffing around for votes, and I make no apology for that. I like to keep things balanced. I can’t always be picking on the same person when I rant.

Today I’m hopping over to the side of retailers. Oh, I know there are rogue traders out there, and they’re not welcome in this party. I’m not siding with the idiots. If you’re sat on tanks of illegal crayfish, or whopping great, ILFA alarmed cats, then you’re dead to me.

But to all the other retailers, let’s just have one big, warming group hug. I used to be one of you. I’ve served my time in the field. I have scars to prove it, and maybe a liver brimming full of malachite. Customers, stand back. This is them and me time.

With our trade comes the development of certain skills and handicaps. We might not have the panther-like reflexes of a fighter pilot or inner city motorcycle courier, nor the relentless, zombie like persistence of the telesales caller, but skills nonetheless. Unique ones. And drawbacks.

Plenty of forums have the 'you know you’re a fishkeeper if' threads going on, and in fairness some of them are funny. Some of them.

But for the life of me, I could not find anyone who had put together a 'you know you’re a fish retailer when' thread. So I decided to do one myself. I wanted to think what things defined us as retailers, what abilities we take for granted that perhaps we shouldn’t.

And here they are.

You’re able to deduce exactly what fish someone is talking about no matter how bad the description.

It’s never straightforward, is it? Customer has a problem with a fish. Not an issue, you think. But go on, ask for more details, I dare you. You know exactly where this is going…

"It’s a kind of reddy, bluish thing with fins and that," you’ll be told. Straight away your brain is sending off warning sirens, like your mind is about to be assaulted by intellectual dive-bombers. You stop the conversation right there and grab a book from a shelf, turning to a page.

"Is that it?" you ask, pointing at an image of a yellow Labidochromis.

"Yes, yes that’s the one," you’re told. "How did you know?"

For the best part, customers describing fish are pretty good. Hell, some even know the names. But I’ll bet you’ve mastered your Sherlock Holmesing to a tee when it comes to those few vague ones. The ones where red means blue, long finned means eel, and active means dead.

Yes, at times it’s like you’ve taken on the role of Batman, with the Riddler teasing you over the phone. Except it’s not as comical, and you’re not allowed to beat your antagonist up.

Also, you’ll usually be able to pick up from even the most mispronounced name what the customer actually means. So when you get that one person wanting to talk to you about a Cormorant chinickichallorid, it’ll not even take the tiniest moment to click that they mean Convict cichlid.

If you’re a real pro, you’ll even keep your cool when you try to correct their pronunciation, only for it to fall on deaf ears. Familiar with the following style of dialogue?

You: "Cichlid."

Them: "Chinickichallorid."

You: "No, cichlid. Sick…"

Them: "Chinicki?"

You: "…lid."

Them: "Challorid!"

You: "Sigh."

If you are then I share that pain.

You can isolate a fish in a thousand, and see and catch in multiples of six.

As a retailer, I’ll wager that your netting abilities are set at veteran level. Last Kuhli loach in a tank, and the only net you’ve got is old and bent? Give it 20 seconds and you’ll have it.

I’ll bet I could even get you a couple of massive, custom made nets and the hydraulic suit that Ripley wore in Aliens, turn you towards the English channel and you’ll have cleaned it out in half an hour.

As your predator and hunter skills go, you are probably cutting edge. A customer will ask for a specific fish – one yellow female guppy in a tank of 250 yellow female guppies – and you will lock onto it like some radar guided missile. No matter where it goes in that tank, you’ll be on it. You’ll isolate it, and have it out without thinking anything of the matter. You’re like the ninja-sniper of fish tracking.

Admit it, I bet you even know exactly which fish the customer wants when they point vaguely into the tank. How on earth do you do that?

I also bet you don’t notice how much you take for granted the catching of multiples. Put yourself to the test this weekend. If you sell shoaling fish in sixes, see how long it takes you to catch six of anything. I’ll put money on you getting all six, within seconds, in the same net and on the first strike.

The ability to count anything in sixes starts to permeate into everything after a while. It becomes habituated. Anything. A bundle of nails, spilled Maltesers, chunks in a casserole. You start to get haunted by sixes.

You might even find that you can count up a bag of fish, or a well stocked tank, in seconds. A customer will bring you a package full of fry. Not sure how many, they’ll say. Either thirty-one or thirty two. You’ll have a glance, your mighty retail retinas taking in the bundle for a few moments.

There are exactly twenty-nine, you’ll say with authority. You’ll be right too.

You can spot a sick fish two days before it shows symptoms.

I don’t know how we do this one, but we do. It’s like those people who sex chicks for a living. There might be no outward signs, not a spot, not a split fin, not a streak in the skin or strand of slime on the body, but something will catch your eye. You’ll know that a certain fish is about to get ill.

Maybe it’s something in the posture of the fish. A tiny change in the way it holds its fins. A single, barely perceptible alteration to its normal behaviour. And not just in a big, noticeable fish. If you’ve got one Cardinal in a tank of 200 that’s about to go down, you’ll spot it, as loud and bright as if it had a strobe stuck to its belly and it was dancing like a drunk at a wedding.

You get that Monday telephone horror.

Now, this one’s not so much of a skill, but it sure is a retailer neurosis. And as someone who has been out of the trade for years, I can sadly report back that it stays with you. It’s baggage you’ll carry for life. You’ll fear the telephone forever.

The first post-weekend phone call has the power to destroy a retailer’s week. If the phone is trilling away some five minutes before opening time, then it is, almost without exception, a bad sign. The mind recoils in horror, scanning through every scenario from the weekend. Was there anyone who was high risk? Were there any customers who were blatantly lying through their teeth about having a mature tank? Of course there were, every store is cursed with a few of that kind of patron.

No, Monday time is not the time for a retailer to wind down after a busy weekend. It is the terror time, when he or she needs to have complete control of their wits.

In fact the only thing that can beat it is to turn up Monday morning and be greeted by someone at the shop door/car park/roadside clutching at a bag of fish. You can’t see what’s in there from a distance, but you know it’s going to be trouble. And you can’t help to feel you’re about to get lied to…

You have the unrivalled ability to gauge sizes and volumes.

How long is a piece of string? Show it to an aquatic retailer and they’ll tell you to within a billionth of an inch.

This is a skill we really do take for granted, but many of us have it to a remarkable degree. I guess that those years of selling airline lengths, strips of backing paper and even assessing the size of an old light tube have paid off.

Get us on mastermind, and our specialist subject could easily be ‘assessing lengths of wood from 50 yards’. Myself and Jeremy are so good at it that if anyone in the office comes in with a pair of heels, we can tell the height at first glance with an accuracy of 1 or 2mm. Ask any non-fishy heads walking by to have a guess, and they’ll be out by a good 16 furlongs or more.

But you’ll also be pretty hot with volumes, I’m sure. Spot a pond and you’ll have it calculated to within 50 litres off of nothing more than a scant visual assessment.

Customers, when a store worker has come around to your home to work on your pond and tells you that it’s 400 gallons, you’d do well to believe them. They’re rarely wrong.

And now I ponder it, this leads me to my next point…

You’re a conversion ratio calculator.

There aren’t many people as involved in the imperial/metric size divide as we are. We’re almost ambassadors for each side, a go-between that lets the two worlds continue to communicate with each other.

It’s another one I’d put money on you not even noticing. You’re a master of working feet into centimetres, or gallons to litres.

Picture it, your partner is looking at a shelf or something on eBay, and asks you what seven point three inches is in centimetres. And without even looking up from your Baensch atlas you casually bark back that it’s 18.5. To your partner, something miraculous has happened, like Rain Man recounting names from the phone book from memory, but for you it’s just an everyday query that comes up.

You’ll be good with gallons, too. In fact, you’re probably one of the few people in your world that even knows there is a US and an imperial gallon. You hear that, everyone else? There are different sized gallons. That’ll pickle you.

You have superhuman strength.

I’m not joking here. Some of the things you move would bend a weightlifter’s spine like a slinky. 8m wide roll of liner, and you and one other to put it on the rack? Water off a duck’s back.

If you have fingers that are impervious to flesh-digging glass edges, then you’ve really been in the trade a while. Two people carrying 150kg of tank, rip-roaringly against all health and safety laws, would pull the digits off of a lesser human. A fish retailer, howver, thinks about filling the thing up with dry goods, to save coming back for a second trip out to the van.

You have an absolute lack of finger grease.

Working in aquatic retail destroyed two things I adored – mixing music and rolling cigarettes.

The retailer has an imperviousness to wet sleeves, and their skin seems to dry itself naturally. But in the process of being in those tanks all day, each and every day, those essential skin oils that help us grip things just wick away into the ether.

I’m sure you have your own examples, but for me, the sides of a Rizla became more slippery than a Vaseline smothered skateboard ramp, and vinyl on a turntable became as difficult to control as a herd of cats. What’s your thing? Musical instruments that become a thousand times harder after a day’s graft? Kitchen knives that want to skitter out of your hand when you go to cook some dinner? I bet you have one, at least.

You are absolutely oblivious to what the 'Friday feeling' is.

Let me finish off with a really bitter one, eh? Friday daytime, everyone’s brimming with excitement about getting hammered, going out for meals, watching movies and clubbing to the wee small hours. They make reference to the Friday feeling, as though it’s some universal euphoria that rains down from the heavens, instilling love and joy into the souls of everyone.

Meanwhile, you’re thinking about whether you should run the hoover round one last time and having a quick face up before you go home for a bog standard night.

Most seasoned aquatic store workers have no idea what a weekend looks like out of their store. At best, they’ll have one in four or so off, venturing out like culturally shocked cavemen awoken into an age of shiny things and technology. The notion of a Friday night seen through to morning, suckling on bottles like a hungry baby, is an obscure fantasy, a memory from times before entering the trade.

On the flipside, there’s no better time to get your grocery shopping in than a weekday morning, when all the stores are uncluttered and you can get to market stalls without resorting to a fist fight. Am I right? I know that some of you chaps out there can relate to that…

You?

I know there are more to add to this, but these are some of those aquatic retailer features that stick with me.

I could add the delivery night paranoia, when safely home in bed and you convince yourself that you’ve left a bag of new arrivals floating.

I could refer to the ease at which you can get to the impeller of any pump invented anywhere on the planet, ever.

I could even hint at the skill of being able to tell temperatures through touch alone – something that many experts will deny is possible.

Or how about spotting algae before it’s started to grow? When it’s just a transparent haze that you need to be close up to see. I reckon you could spot it from orbit.

Either way, let’s discuss any others you can think of. What unique habits and features mark you out as having spent time in the hobby? Which ticks and talents have you picked up on the way?

Let’s make the most of it while we can, too. After all, I might be siding with the consumers again next week and turning on you.

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