- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

DETROIT (AP) - Kevin Johnson loves fish. Loves them so much that he spent a life working with them. So when the owner of the aquarium supply shop where he’d worked for years announced a couple years ago that the store was closing for good, he was adrift.

“I was shocked,” the 49-year-old Detroiter told the Detroit Free Press (https://on.freep.com/1vewjuM ). “We were all shocked. It was like all our store. We were like family here. To come in and be like, ‘That’s it,’ - what do you mean? Nobody could do nothing.”

It was hard to tell who was more affected by the news - the staff or the residents around the store, who would soon step in to make sure there wasn’t yet another subtraction from their neighborhood.

Johnson became infatuated with aquariums when he was about 7, when he visited his brother and marveled at the fish swimming so gracefully in his tanks.

He got his own aquariums, began breeding fish at home and eventually started his own fish tank cleaning business called Kaptain Kev’s Kleaning. Even when he got a nonfish job stocking shelves at Meijer, he’d find himself checking on the fish in the handful of tanks they kept at the back of the store.

“I think there should be an aquarium in every house in the world,” he said enthusiastically, noting that the children’s hospitals among his customers have installed and stocked aquariums to soothe anxious children.

“It’s very therapeutic and relaxing. If I’m stressful from bills, a lot of times I just go home and look at the fish and go, man, this is so relaxing, the bubbles and the fish moving back and forth. It’s extremely calming.”

It was natural that he’d wind up at Exotic Aquarium, the neighborhood fish store that had been on Detroit’s west side since 1951, a short walk from his house. For 20 years, he devoted himself to that store, as did the residents nearby.

And suddenly, it was over.

“One day you’ve got a job and the next day you don’t,” said Tador Hawkins, 23. He, too, loved fish tanks, and he, too, spent years working at the neighborhood aquarium store. “It was basically, ‘Your last day is Friday. See you around.’ “

Johnson was determined not to let it end like that.

He offered to buy what was left in the old store and start his own. The owner sold him the fish, their tanks and the crickets and crumbs that feed them for $2,300.

It wasn’t hard finding an empty storefront in a neighborhood full of them, and his eye settled on one just a short walk from the old store. But then a relative offered him a discounted retail space out in safer, cleaner West Bloomfield. It made sense to take it.

The neighbors heard of his plan to start his own business and came by.

“People said, ‘You’re really going to do it? That’s amazing. But Kevin, don’t leave,’ ” he remembered.

In a city lacking such basics as department stores and movie theaters, a specialty store focused on fish tanks might seem to make an insignificant impact.

But to the neighbors, every mom-and-pop store that stayed in the neighborhood was important, even if they didn’t need fish supplies all that often.

Hawkins, who grew up just blocks from the store, understood the dynamic at work.

“I understand it’s bad here, I understand the climate and the crime level. We’re working on it,” Hawkins said. “But in the meantime, to help keep some of those problems down, this gives people something … to do. When you take everything out of the city, when you strip it, when businesses leave the city, it really affects the rest of the community.”

The employees, he said, used to walk to a hardware store around the corner for basic supplies. It’s gone now. They’d bring back carryout lunch from the diner up the street. Gone, too. They’d get ceramic aquarium decorations custom made at a little shop on McNichols. Gone. The neighbors had seen too many of these little stores close, and didn’t want yet another empty building in their midst.

Johnson decided to stay.

As he began slowly building his store, the neighbors would come by to chip in. Someone dropped off free cans of paint. Someone else called Johnson now and then at night if they saw anything suspicious at the store. Even a distributor sensed what was at stake, and would bring more fish than Johnson ordered without charging.

The Rev. Prince Miles lives in Southfield, but makes a point to drive to Kev’s Aquarium for supplies that often cost less than the gas to get here. He said neighbors admired what he called Johnson’s integrity and the fact that he chose to stay when so many others had left.

“He needs to be supported,” said the bowler-hatted reverend. “And this is the way his customers think - ‘This black man is doing the right thing. He’s building his community, he’s building his neighborhood and I’m gonna help him do that.’ “

It took a year of hard work to get the store open.

At first Johnson was on his own. The old store’s owner vanished. Most of the other staff from the old store found other jobs, including Hawkins, the kid who’d hung around the store so much, he once was offered a job there. But now Hawkins was working just across the street, standing on the curb holding a big sign, waving people into a cell phone store.

Johnson knew how hard Hawkins always worked, the pride he took in cleaning the fish tanks, the enthusiasm with which he offered new ideas to an indifferent owner, like creating tutorial videos for customers. If you join me at the new store, Johnson told him, I’ll make you the manager.

The pair worked day and night in their empty storefront, often until 3 in the morning, right until opening day. Once again, people had a place nearby to get ghost shrimp and fire eels, stingrays and gobys.

“Everybody was so happy,” Johnson said. “Everybody was in here. I remember the week we opened I said we might do $500. We did $3,000. People were just so ecstatic - ‘Kevin, you did it!’ “

The store is half the size of the old one, marked only by small handmade signs, and a banner that pokes out of a plantless pot of dirt out front. It’s still Johnson’s work in progress.

But it’s a living part of the neighborhood, a small business still standing, made real in part by the will of the people around it.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship, kind of like the crab and the goby,” Hawkins said of the store’s place in the neighborhood. “You got the little goby, the crab digs the hole, the goby lives in it with the crab, the crab protects the goby, the goby protects the crab. They both have a place to live, they work together to keep the hole up. That’s how it works.”


Information from: Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com

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