Farewell, Frank Lull

Friday, I found out that Frank Lull of The Fish Store, died.

Upon hearing of his death, I experienced that abyssal emotion of losing something precious and unrecoverable. While I hadn’t seen or talked to him in years, I cannot fathom the person I would be had I not met him and spent some time as a recipient of some of his kindness, wisdom and humor. I most certainly would have made many, many more mistakes with my own business and taken much longer to learn how to interact with different types of people.

From hiring a gangly nineteen year-old with a bum knee on crutches whose most recent tropical fish husbandry skills were as a twelve year-old to hiring a burnt-out thirty-two year-old going through a divorce and the seeming implosion of his business, Frank was fucking awesome in a, “Wow, I’m really glad I met this guy,” sort of way.

As an example, Frank had pretty clear rules for staff and for customers.

The customer policy was posted in black in white in several locations around the store. When I was bored at work, I would read it just to kill a few seconds, and to savor the power they gave me to deal with unreasonable customers.

It spoke of guarantees and water tests, and refunds and exchanges. Often enough to be memorable but not so much as to forget it in its repetition, the store policy would be duly pointed to, and a dispute would be settled, sometimes grudgingly, and very rarely, angrily.

I remember one of the angry ones. He was a man deep down in a righteous well of high, agitated dudgeon, demanding the return of his money for some item he either didn’t want or didn’t need and he didn’t have a receipt. Policy be damned, he wanted his money back!

Frank, as I recall, was sitting upon one of the rusty, metal-framed with plywood tread stools, working on the schedule or an order sheet, with a pen in one hand poised above the paper and cigarette in the other, held aloft like he couldn’t decide if he was going to put it down again for a bit or take another drag right away. He looked up at the commotion, set his cigarette down on the many times over previously-scorched edge of the wood-grain patterned formica of the counter and stood with a smile, saying, “I’ll take care of this.”

Mister Angry shot a triumphant, subjugating look to the berated and flustered clerk, his eyes glittering with smug, anticipatory satisfaction of being made whole.

Frank inquired if the customer was aware of the store policy. He was.

Frank inquired if the customer understood the policy. He did.

Frank further inquired if the customer absolutely needed his money back instead of an exchange or credit. He demanded it.

Shrugging his shoulders, Frank said, “Okay,” and proceeded to open the cash register, count out the money into his right hand, stand up straight and then hold it up and out with arm fully extended and parallel to the counter. Mister Angry didn’t quite know what to do with this.

Now, the next time you’re in a store returning something and receive cash in exchange, notice how and where the money changes hands. It’s usually a transfer a few inches above the counter with arms bent or the money is counted out onto the counter.

Unsure of this new protocol, Mister Now Puzzled tentatively brought his hand up underneath Frank’s, likely expecting Frank to drop the money into it. Instead, Frank placed his money-fisted hand into the customer’s outstretched one and looked him in the eye while saying quietly and levelly, “Before I give this back to you, you have to promise me something.”

Confused and taken aback, “Uh…okay.”

“Don’t ever fucking come back into my store,” Frank said conversationally, firmly placing the funds into the man’s hand. Then he quietly turned and walked away, retrieved his cigarette for a quick drag, and sat back down to work like nothing had interrupted him.

From that, I learned that some customers aren’t worth the trouble.

Belying that gruff exterior, Frank was a very generous spirit in word and deed with a great sense of humor.

As an example, one of the assistant managers had been complaining about back pain for months. This same person had been using Frank’s loaned car, a 1970’s beast of a Cadillac, which made him the on-call person to swap for Frank’s van and head down to SeaTac to pick up overseas shipments on a moment’s notice.

One day, after a very long and very busy day, Frank came downstairs, (he lived behind and above the store for many years,) and tapped this guy on the shoulder a few minutes before closing and told him to grab the van to pick up a delivery. It was plain to see he was crestfallen at not being able to go home to relax and wasn’t looking forward to hefting around boxes filled with water, but he dutifully took the keys from Frank and headed towards the back door.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Frank started to laugh. “He’s in for a surprise.”

Moments later, the assistant manager rushed back in and thanked Frank profusely for the new mattress that was stuffed in the back of the van. Frank had heard him complaining about his bed and how it had been slowly exacerbating his back pain.

Frank was like that that way.

So Frank, thanks for hiring me, twice, and teaching me so many things about how to run a business, be kind to people and deal with idiots. You were a great man, I miss you and I wish I’d had one last opportunity to thank you personally.

I am forever in your debt and a better person for having known you.


13 responses to “Farewell, Frank Lull

  1. Pingback: Farewell, Peter Murphy | Kilbo - Chris Kilbourn

  2. Brent, Chris, and David, thanks for stopping by!

    I remember Brent’s mustache (still have it?) and ability to recite the Latin names of just about anything.

    Chris, I don’t remember if we worked together? (But then, I have low recall of the late 80’s/early 90’s due to, um, studying all the time. 😉

    David, I can’t imagine what working there in the 70’s might have been like – I can only assume that was when Frank started his wallpaper.

    I have so many funny stories about Frank; I may yet do a follow-up post about him “re-interviewing” me when I went back to work for him in 2001.

    I have yet to visit the new store, but did have a good chat with Dan (the current owner) at Frank’s memorial. He’s a good guy; Frank’s a hard act to follow.

    • Chris, I am afraid the Tibbs stache is gone. I have been fortunate to land a job where my passion for latin (yikes) can still be indulged. I am a biologist with the Guam fish and wildlife agency now. I have eaten many of the fish we used to sell at the fish store. I did work at a petshop on Guam for a short while. One day, a couple months after I moved here, a customer walked in and said “Hey, you just helped me at the Fish Store in Seattle”. He was a college student in Seattle, but came home to Guam for summer break. I also have many Frank stories I would like to share. Perhaps during my next visit to Seattle, we can arrange a Fish Store alumni meeting. I will probably be in Seattle in late April or early May.

      • Awesome! So glad to hear that it sounds like you’re doing what you wanted to do. I’d love to get together the ned time you’re through town and tip a pint to Frank and share stories. I struggled with which vingettes of Frank to share. Now that some time has passed, it might be time for a few colorful ones. 🙂

      • Brent Tibbatts

        Chris, that sounds good. I can’t think of any Frank memories that aren’t colorful. Ill let you know when I am in the Seattle area again. Do you have an email or other means of contacting you? I do enjoy the blog, but it can be a bit cumbersome.

  3. I worked for Frank in the late 80s and early 90s. I worked with both Chris Kilbourn and Chris H. Frank was the finest boss I have worked for. He was gruff but fair, and would do most anything for his employees. I will miss his humor, and I miss working at the Fish Store. I think I enjoyed working there more than any job I have had. R.I.P Frank, and thank you.

    • Brent, do you have any tilapia? 😉

      Agreed, I enjoyed working there more than any other job. I think, so far, if I could go back in time to any point in my life to do it again, I think it would be my years at the Fish Store.

      Anyone see High Fidelity? Couple of parts of that reminds me of The Fish Store (at least as I knew it). First, a line from the movie: “I get by because of the people who make a special effort to shop here – mostly young men – who spend all their time looking for deleted Smith singles and original, not rereleased – underlined – Frank Zappa albums. Fetish properties are not unlike porn. I’d feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn’t… well… kinda one of them.”

      The other, not so flattering, part is actually viewable online…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOwjVVSNOtY

      • Brent Tibbatts

        Chris, very good. That does capture how I felt working at the fish store. I also agree with you, that if I could live any part of my life over, it would be those years. Not just work, but my time at UW, and my friends and room mates. Those were enjoyable days. I was in Seattle in December, and visited the new fish store, on Lake City Way. A completely different feel. I don’t think I can (or will) go back again.

    • Those were good days. Except for the spoilt brine shrimp days. 😉

  4. I, too worked for Frank in the seventies. Both at the Roosevelt store and Bellevue. I had a dream about him last night. Google brought up this site and I am sad. He was everything you both have written.
    I have missed him for years, and went to visit once in the nineties.
    He was a good mentor.

  5. I’m glad I found this…. I can’t say as I remember you or whether we ever met, Chris, but I too worked at the Fish Store for many years (late 80’s through about 1995). I had many of the same experiences, and will miss Frank a lot. For me, and so many others, he was the father I never had.

    We had a guy come in once with a baggie full of dead fish. It was just Frank and I in the store shortly after opening. The guy was a pushy jerk right from the get go. Frank just ignored him while I did the water tests. Ammonia and nitrite were nil which was odd considering the number of fish that had been stuffed into a small tank. But, the guy was being such a jerk, I tested for chlorine… Of course, Frank had been paying attention in a way that appeared disinterested. So when the test tube turned green, I just looked up and over to him, and he turned to me knowing what the issue was. So, he got up and walked over to us, took off his glasses and exhaled fairly sharply in that Frank way… He said to the guy, “What’s your name?” The guy says, “My name is Richard….” Frank doesn’t miss a beat and says, “Look Dick, we have…” But the guy cuts him off to say, “Richard… my name is Richard…” Frank looks the guy right in the eye and says, “I know. Dick. You brought us tap water. Now get the hell out and don’t come back.” Classic….

  6. small farms matter big

    like this one, the tone, the details, the little surprise at the end.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.