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.