“My nickname is Small Time,” says Gaines, who has short, curly hair and a Staten Island accent. “And I don’t think I can ever move on from that. I wash the dishes downstairs—I was doing dishes all weekend, actually. I do my best thinking at the sink.” Her hands are tucked under her legs that don’t quite reach the ground. “The only problem is that I have to take off my gloves to write [my ideas] down.”
Julie and Dave met in 1986 on West 15th Street, where Julie had just moved. Dave worked in his cousin Noah’s dishware shop on the corner. One weekend, the new couple went to the Adirondacks to try their hand at camping (it didn’t go well) and on the way home (the same day) they passed the sign for a hamlet called Fishs Eddy. That’d be a good name for a store, they thought. It was charming, the weird combination of words and the atypical spelling of fishes. “And we loved going to flea markets,” says Gaines, “We were like, ‘What if we just opened a little store, just committed to rent for a year, and see how it goes?’ The rent was $1,100. And then we got press, and we’re making the rent in a few hours, and okay: we’re merchants.”
Julie and I are talking in an upstairs conference room. The light is warm, natural, and inviting; the walls are covered with oil paintings of random people—Julie’s been collecting them at flea markets since high school—and other bric-a-brac. “Our first store looked a lot like this, actually.” This is one of two rooms that comprise the business area of the store, but it seems more an extension of the larger, folksy atmosphere downstairs. Piles of books—including one stack of decal books from turn-of-the-century manufacturers— precariously fill every surface; tiled paint samples adorn the walls and the glass underlay of the wood conference table. “When the manufacturers closed,” explains Gaines, “We were there for every one. And we got everything.”
Gaines lives a relatively casual life focused on family: she and her father, a Staten Island native now living in Tribeca, will usually meet at Waverly Diner for breakfast. He’ll drop her off at work, then she’ll frantically try to figure out her daily priorities until her assistant tells her what they should be. She loathes the gym, but has MS so she dutifully finds time to slip to the gym down the street. She doesn’t bother with workout clothes; she simply does some squats in her jeans and non-athletic shoes of the day. At some point, she’ll make plans to do something that night—she never knows what it’s going to be before the day begins. Perhaps she’ll see one of her employees play guitar in a bar, or go to one of their art shows; recently, she went to see employee Linda’s 10-year-old daughter, Scarlett, in Bye Bye Birdie.
The book is also a family affair—it’s a graphic novel illustrated by Julie’s son, Ben Lenovitz. “He happens to be my son,” Gaines says of his art, “But there’s nobody else on the planet that could have done drawings that are as wonky and simple as this store.”
Minding the Store is written from Julie’s point of view, starting with meeting Dave. Through the 30 years worth of narrative, there are ups and downs and expansion and downsizing and two nosy mothers and two kids and three soul-sucking CEOs—but you’ll have to read the book for the hilarious details. Gaines’s writing is straightforward and witty, and it makes sense that the design-forward store would have a design-forward book (and even more sense that the family store would have a family book). Both the illustrations and the text deserve a good poring over; the more you look, the more there is to find. It’s a learn-by-example experience; while Gaines doesn’t have all the answers of how to run a small business, she does have the answers that worked for her.
The publishers have wanted her to do a DIY book for years. “I’m not a DIY girl—I can’t sew a button on my pants.” Gaines says. “But I told them I do have a story to tell, because I’ve been around for 30 years.” A decade or so ago, when business was bad, Gaines needed an outlet. “I was like, I’ve got to write,” she says, “And I tried, believe it or not, standup comedy. And that didn’t go so well. But I got writing out of it.” This book was largely written in real-time— for Julie by Julie—then pieced together now, for us.
“Oh, you’re gonna love this.” She excitedly flips through her book, landing on a page with the cartoon version of her standing awkwardly in front of a microphone. She reads aloud: “After a few performances, it was clear that I was not meant to be onstage. I was meant to be doing what I love most: dishes.”
The store just got a load of dishes from Bridge Restaurant Supply, which has been around since the ’30s—in fact, Gaines touts, Julia Child used to shop there. “It was surprising,” Gaines says, “Because we haven’t had a find in a long time of somebody getting rid of a lot of stuff.”
While doing those dishes this weekend, she realized that she should weigh in on the midterm elections. We’ll put up a community board,she thought. We’ll put up an old door, cover it with foam core, and fill it with Post-Its. We’ll call it: Midterm Madness.
“We get a very opinionated crowd,” Gaines laughs. “I get Trump supporters, Trump haters, nannies, their employers, new students coming to the city, tons are tourists, old-timers that have been coming to us for 30 years.
The Fishs Eddy vernacular is, as Gaines says, “a little folky, a little silly, a little uneducated,” and definitely skews New York liberal: they have Warren 2020 mugs, rainbow dishtowels that say “Everyone’s A Little Bit Gay,” and dishes with 1700s portraits and words like “queer” or “pussy” underneath. At the beginning of each week, Gaines responds to some hate mail.
“They’ll be like ‘retail and politics shouldn’t mix,’ but I never got that memo,” says Gaines. “We do this because it’s America and we can. We’re a small business and we proudly and unapologetically use retail as a platform to voice our opinion.” She laughs. “Plus, it’s low-hanging fruit for me because we’re in New York City.”
Now downstairs in the store, Gaines stands in front of a display with her design director, Abby Wilkinson. She explains how the intricate array of saucers, plates and dish towels will need to be replaced with the Midterm Madness display—ASAP. Wilkinson nods, then rushes upstairs to mock up a sign.
“I have a phobia of plans,” Gaines explains, referring to her lack of daily routine. “It’s the same as this store. There’s something very impetuous about it, and very last minute. I make everyone crazy here, I admit it.”
For now, she’s focusing on things like how to beat pesky Amazon and its convenient two-day shipping. But she can give customers things that the digital conglomerate can’t: somewhere to go, something to touch, and something to feel—a community.