“Generally speaking, a big fish will eat a little fish,” Pete Sachs warned two customers at his New Haven store, Worldwide Fish and Pets. The customers conferred with each other in a foreign language, then turned back to Pete. Pete wasn’t impressed by their shopping list.
“You’re looking for size and to spend cheap,” he said. “After these new ones rip apart your fish and fuck up your tank, then you’ll come back.” The men seemed disappointed and asked how much bigger some of the smaller fish would grow. Pete walked along a wall of tanks, tapping quickly on the glass before giving a length with his thumb and index finger. “These will grow about this big, those ones a little longer.” Eventually, the two men left with the best that Pete was willing to sell them: a 4-inch tricolor shark for $16.99 — if it survives, it could grow to twice that size.
Worldwide isn’t the kind of store where the customer is always right. In fact, the customer is usually wrong, and Pete is right. I picked out a 5.3-gallon tank on my first visit, and after looking around at some potential occupants, I called Pete over to a group of coral gouramis. “You can’t put those in there,” he said. “Your tank won’t fit them.” The fish were a beautiful iridescent light blue, with a deep orange painting the edges of their fins, and about 3 inches long. I thought they could easily fit in 5 gallons of water, but I’d already spent enough time at Worldwide to take Pete’s word for it.
“What about a couple bettas?” I asked.
“Two bettas? That works,” he said.
I spent the next week admiring my new friends as they slipped between my aquatic plants and squeezed past the toy Easter Island head I’d dropped in with them. They distracted me from my homework, gliding around the tank with the occasional flourish from their silky fins. My filter was pumping nicely, I could see its sponge had already collected debris, and the thermometer was holding steady at a balmy 78 degrees. I felt like it was time to add some guppies. But Pete had other ideas — he wanted me to bring him some water from my tank to check its quality first.
“It looks healthy,” I protested.
“It’s a new tank!” he shook his head.
The next afternoon, Pete quickly gathered the tools for my water test: two short glass tubes and a chemical solution to drip into each. For a heavyset man who wears his jeans so low that they bunch up in folds at his feet, he moves about his store with fluidity. There’s a controlled mania to almost everything he does. He sheds his sweatshirts once they’ve been splattered by enough tank water, and throws them back on as hurriedly once they dry out. If he’s without his glasses, he has a harder time locating fish, pushing plants and castles and sunken ships aside in the process, but it never takes him long to find one when he needs it.
“A trace of ammonia,” Pete said as the water in one of the vials went from a pale yellow to a vivid chartreuse. “Have you been putting in the stability every day?” Stability is filled with helpful bacteria that break down fish waste. Pete had included a bottle in the starter kit he sold me for half price the day I bought my tank. I thought I was supposed to put a capful in only when I filled the tank, but I guess I’d forgotten that fish eat and shit every day.
“Why do people always do that?” Pete asked, exasperated. Pete is often exasperated with customers, which is why he gives them his phone number and recommends they send him photo updates on their plants and fish. “Most people come back when their tanks are messed up, because they forget half the things I tell them.” Pete reluctantly allowed me to buy two guppies.
Back in my dorm, the guppies ran into trouble before they had a chance to even taste the ammonia in my water. The bettas met them at the surface and started to nip at their fan-like back fins. Within seconds, both the guppies were missing large chunks out of their tails. I figured the bettas mistook the guppies for the brightly colored fish flakes I was feeding them. I sprinkled some flakes in to distract the bettas from their new neighbors, but apparently not enough to keep them satisfied through the night. The next morning, I woke up to find the skinnier guppy stripped of all his fins, floating pitifully amongst the leaves of an aquatic plant. He soon sank lifeless to the gravel floor.
I told Pete about the murder the next time I saw him. “Oh my god, did you call the police?” He slapped me on the shoulder. “Sounds like a case for NCIS.”
One drizzly morning, during a lull in business, Pete asked me to walk with him down the block to the gas station at the intersection of Amity Road and Whalley Avenue. Inside the Mobil mart, he ordered a pack of Newport shorts and a large coffee, then added a couple Dutch waffle cookies from the candy counter.
“I used to eat these 25 years ago in Holland,” he said.
“What were you doing in Holland?” I asked. “On vacation?”
“I was in prison,” he answered, without a pause.
When Pete smiles, he shows a couple missing teeth back towards his molars. He doesn’t keep a regular meal schedule while manning Worldwide and sometimes snacks on the nuts he buys for his birds. The hair on his head is black and usually slicked up into little spikes, but the stubble that dusts his cheeks by the end of a long day comes out white.
Pete was born in New Haven in 1967 and grew up amongst all kinds of animals. His father, Marvin, had worked in the construction industry before his company went bankrupt. Marvin kept fish as a hobby and used to sell some back to pet stores for a few extra bucks. He decided to visit local reservoirs and pick plants like anacharis and cabomba and ended up trading them to a guy he knew for a cellarful of broken tanks. He fixed up the tanks and opened a store. Soon, he was ordering livestock from Florida, then from Asia, South America, and the rest of the globe. From there, he built up a chain of pet stores across the northeast called Animal Kingdom, whose shelves included pets that are no longer legally available in many states, like skunks and monkeys. Some of the most unusual made their way home with Marvin. Pete remembers tarantulas, snakes, and caymans sharing the place with cats, dogs, and fish; he claims there’s an old photo somewhere of his brother Monty taking a lion into school for show and tell.
When Pete was about 5 years old, Marvin sold his chain to a group who took the stores public. Most of Marvin’s end of the deal was in stocks in the new company. The owners turned out to be crooks, cashing out after a stock fraud fiasco, and Marvin barely earned anything from his shares. All he’d kept were a couple of pet stores in the New Haven area. With his connections and expertise, though, he was able to start making money again. “My father knew the pet business very well,” Pete said. “Those stores became some of the highest-volume stores in New England.”
Hanging around his dad’s stores as a teenager, Pete met some guys who introduced him to a shadier business venture. “Every kind of person came into those stores,” he said. “Everyone loves animals.” Before he could even drive, Pete was taking flights from Tweed Airport to LaGuardia to check on shipments of cocaine. In his early 20s, he traveled around Europe and Latin America to arrange deals for a Colombian group. In 1990, he was arrested at customs in Amsterdam, carrying two kilos in a suitcase. A colleague had promised the coke would be pressed into a discreet plastic using a new technology, but when customs stuck a knife in, a white powder was revealed. “He fucked me.” Pete went to trial and spent two years in prison. As soon as he was released, he was extradited back to the US on another drug charge. Between being held without bail and his eventual sentence, he ended up spending another five years behind bars.
Marvin opened a new full-line pet store in Naugatuck, a town 30 minutes north of New Haven, around the time Pete was let out, and he gave his son the chance to manage it. It was there that Pete got his “feet wet with the internet.” A friend who was good with computers put the store online and the orders started coming in. “Within six months, we were doing seven figures.” Customers could order with a click of a button, but the store’s inventory wasn’t yet computerized. “I’m keeping all the stock and merchandise out of my head,” Pete recalled. “I mean, it was crazy.” In the early 2000s, Pete got the ball rolling on what he says could have been a $100 million business, an online megastore for pets and pet supplies. “I was one of the first five people in the country to ship livestock and dry goods.” Then Marvin was diagnosed with cancer and Pete was sidelined by heroin addiction. “I figured I’ll close up and I’ll take care of my family problems and I’ll take care of my personal problems, and I’ll open back up in 18 months.” That didn’t happen. Pete spent the next decade in and out of rehab.
In 2013, Pete opened a store in Amity Plaza, across the street from Worldwide’s current location. Like his dad, he “started with nothing”: just a few old tanks and leftover dry goods. Some merchandise that he’d put away in a Branford storage facility had all been looted. Pete knew he couldn’t open a full-line store, which would require a $250,000 to $400,000 setup, so he stuck to birds and fish. Pete outgrew that space in two years; he’s been at 61 Amity Road for the last five and, just a few months ago, he installed a new system of over 50 tanks.
When Pete needs a cigarette, he steps outside to sit and relax on an old cane bench in front of Worldwide. He cheerfully greets customers from this position, but stays to finish his smoke.
“What was prison like?” I asked one evening as Pete puffed on a pair of Newport shorts.
“It’s prison, I don’t know. It was a fucking room with a lock. It’s a prison, you can’t leave.”
“Like these fish?” I pointed into the store.
“Something like that.”
Ancient people kept fish for both aesthetic and religious reasons. The Egyptians cared for some fish as pets and raised others to be food for dead relatives, building finned coffins for their mummified corpses. In Roman times, oracular fish could foresee the futures of their owners by deciding whether or not to eat. Many of the coastal villas outside the city had lawns decorated by saltwater pools and marble tanks for fish to play in. Aquariums became a global sensation more than a thousand years later with the formalization of goldfish breeding in China and Japan.
During the 19th century, British and German naturalists led the home aquarium into the modern age. They worked to recreate natural ecosystems inside small glass boxes, relying on plants to absorb CO2 and oxygenate the water through photosynthesis. A fad amongst Victorian women was to venture out along the coasts in search of fish, mollusks, and plants to take home. Tank factories and specialist stores brought more people into the fold. Magazines devoted to the hobby sprang up in Europe and the U.S., as well as aquarium societies with names like Neptune, Proteus, and Triton.
The invention of airplanes and plastic bags in the last hundred years have allowed tropical fish to make their way into restaurants, doctor’s offices, and children’s bedrooms everywhere. Saltwater fish can be stunned with toxins in their reef habitats, collected, and sent halfway around the globe in a matter of days. And while freshwater species are bred in captivity, those sold in pet stores are usually still shipped from their native countries. The aquarium trade, however, remains a very dangerous business — for the fish, that is.
Pete has no control over the condition in which his fish are delivered to Worldwide, floating around their bags padded with Brazilian, Indonesian, and Sri Lankan newspapers. In fact, a good number show up dead on arrival. He must immediately set out to make sure the rest survive. He cuts slits into the bags and pops them into tanks, allowing the Filipino or Congolese or Australian water to mix with the New Haven water and the fish to acclimate gently. After medication and a parasite check, they’ve cleared the last major hurdles in their transoceanic voyage.
Pete earns half his income from the retail side of Worldwide, netting the fish directly out of their tanks for customers to carry out with them, and the other half from online mail orders. He prepares these fish for their travels differently from most shippers. Places like Petco, he says, build 40 to 50 percent losses on transported fish into their prices. They usually “purge,” or neglect to feed, the fish for days so that the fish don’t ruin their water en route with feces and suffocate themselves. Pete avoids weakening his fish by doing the exact opposite: “I put a little belly on them.” He charges extra so that he can ship overnight. In the evening, he or his employee Jeff takes the packages to FedEx, and within only 16 to 20 hours, the fish have made it to their destinations without enough time to muddy their water. “Our losses are about one-tenth of the industry standard,” Pete told me as he packed up $200 worth of fish for a hobbyist in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Not only do they survive the trip, but they also survive with customers.”
Worldwide stands at an unlikely crossroads of the international fish trade, next to a nail salon and a Goodwill. A bundle of chimes clinks together when you open the door, ushering you into a cavernous cross between hardware store and tropical paradise. Tanks in three levels extend along two and a half walls. They whisper and bubble as you walk by, receiving new water from rubber tubes wrapped behind them and letting old water spill out through different pipes. In the middle of the floor, there’s an island of stacked bird cages, the dominion of a cockatoo named Dolly who caws a “hello” at you if you’re lucky and screeches a tirade of avian gibberish if you’re not. Down one aisle, you find hooks on hooks of bird accessories, while the other side offers aquarium decorations. Behind a 40-gallon tank housing a brood of baby parrots are your packets of food for fish on any diet — flakes, cubes, algae wafers, insect larvae.
Worldwide’s many tanks are divided into two regions, allowing Pete and Jeff to lightheartedly play out a rivalry as old as the aquarium itself: freshwater versus saltwater. Jeff is the saltwater guru. He has his own setup at home and knows the challenges. Reef fish are far more fragile than their river and estuary counterparts. They require the right salinity, vigorous water movement, and an intense filtration system — under each tank at Worldwide, Jeff keeps three levels of filtration pads, all the way down to a carbon pad of micron-wide pores. While whole schools of freshwater fish are allowed to dart this way and that into each other, saltwater aquariums should be sparsely populated. When Pete first hired him, Jeff removed most of the dividing walls from his side of the store, creating one tank out of every three. On top of the sandy substrates, he then carefully arranged rocks, which host bacteria colonies fundamental to the tanks’ biological filtration. “No offense to freshwater,” Jeff confided to me, “but that’s a box of water — this is an ecosystem.”
Pete and Jeff drop all competitive grudges and work as the best of partners on shipping days. Jeff reads off an order, Pete catches the fish and pressurizes their bags with a burst from a 4-foot-tall oxygen canister, and Jeff packs them into a Styrofoam box.
One afternoon, Jeff stepped outside to run an errand while Pete was in the back storeroom. Pete returned to find the store empty besides me and walked toward the front door.
“Jeff!” he hollered before he’d even opened it.
“Jeff!” a parrot echoed after him.
Soon after Pete opened up at 61 Amity Rd., a young man he’d hired left a pipe running, flooding Worldwide overnight. Pete called up one of his customers, Enrique, who owns a cleaning company (as well as seven fish tanks). Enrique and his team literally bailed Pete out. Since Enrique is currently in the process of moving to a new house, Pete has offered him some real estate in the back corner of the store for a 300-gallon saltwater tank as a token of gratitude. Enrique stops by almost every day to check on his marvelous assortment of corals and sea anemone, blue tangs and eels. He often brings along his toddler daughter, who likes to press her chubby fingers against the aquarium glass and knows her dad’s friend as “Uncle Pete.”
Mindy is another consistent presence at Worldwide. She met Pete a couple years ago, “through birds,” and now owns one of the five store birds who call Worldwide home, a vibrant green Amazon parrot named Willy. Mindy sees Willy and the rest of his cockatoo, finch, and canary pals for an hour or two every day when she comes to feed them, talk to them, and clean their cages.
In addition to the permanent and semi-permanent communities of Worldwide, there are hundreds of customers who regularly visit Pete. It’s often hard to tell how old these relationships are, since Pete treats anyone he knows as a longtime friend. Some met Pete when he was a little kid running around Marvin’s stores, others just recently, unable to figure out why their fish were dying until they found Worldwide.
Pete strikes up conversation with everyone. “How’s your stomach?” he asked a middle-aged man. “Did you visit the doctor I told you to see?”
He discussed Amsterdam’s red-light district with another customer, who was headed off soon on a European business trip. “Girls come from all over,” he said. “There’s something for everyone.”
One Friday, Pete invited me to eat dinner at his aunt’s house in Branford, where he and his siblings gather almost every week for a homey family meal. He told me to show up at Worldwide at 6 p.m. As I arrived, he was shepherding a customer out the door. The man asked what exactly was in the canister of BugBites he’d bought for his fish. Pete told him to look at the ingredients label.
When the customer was gone, Pete quickly studied a bottle of BugBites, rotating it in his hand. “Motherfuckers don’t even put ingredients on these packages — scumbags.”
I was about to call an Uber to take us to Pete’s aunt’s place when a young couple came into the store. Pete turned the lights back on over the banks of tanks.
Many customers can’t make it to Worldwide until late in the evening. Like Pete, they might work seven days a week. Or maybe they’re traveling from far away. The young couple had driven all the way to Worldwide the previous week only to find the store closed. So, they’d returned the next chance they had.
I could tell that for these two, a Friday night date at the fish store was better than anything they’d find at the movies or downtown. The boyfriend, I discovered, kept three tanks at home and was helping his girlfriend start her own 30-gallon aquarium. They moved slowly from tank to tank, consulting with each other and laughing for over half an hour before they were ready to buy.
The girlfriend wanted eight guppies, four male and four female. She pointed out and tried to describe each fish from amongst its cousins, a shimmying whirlwind of blacks, whites, yellows, oranges, teals, neon greens, and magentas. Pete dexterously maneuvered his aquarium net to isolate each fish and pull it out from the crowd.
“How do you know which ones are male and which ones are female?” I asked.
“The males are more beautiful,” the girlfriend said.
“Actually, some guppies are so incredibly gorgeous that the females are prettier than the males of other guppy breeds,” Pete cautioned. It turns out there are other subtle hints, like weight distribution and the shape and texture of their fins.
The girlfriend wasn’t sure whether these guppies would pair off and mate, but it wouldn’t be a problem if they did. The boyfriend smiled and told me about a group of frisky plecos he kept in a large tank. “They just won’t stop breeding,” he looked at his girlfriend. Since starting with only a few fish, he now had over a hundred.
We didn’t end up making it to Pete’s aunt’s house that night. Customers kept trickling in, and by the time the last one had left and Pete had shut off all the lights and locked the door, dinner was over.
“I’m so sorry, Matthew,” Pete said, tossing a cigarette butt to the asphalt and walking over to meet his brother Ricky, who’d come to pick him up. It was no problem, I told him, he was doing good business. I bought a burger from Five Guys and took the bus home. When I got back to my dorm, I glanced at my tank and saw that my last guppy had lost a whole half of its back fin. He looked weird and crippled. I thought about texting Pete for advice, but I figured patience was probably the only cure. I felt confident his tail would eventually grow back on its own.