Fishs Eddy founder Julie Gaines has a joke she likes to tell people when they visit: “We’re the biggest gift shop for the smallest museum.” Open since 1986, her store downstairs is the business, but upstairs is where Gaines says she’s found her inspiration for one of the city’s most beloved stores.
That upstairs “museum,” once a hidden destination, is no longer secret as Gaines started giving public tours over the last two years because she felt like sharing the room. Today, tours are announced on the Fishs Eddy Instagram.
Named after a charming little upstate town, Fishs Eddy opened in Manhattan following Gaines’ graduation from undergrad with an art degree. In the early days of the business, Gaines and her former partner and co-founder, David Lenovitz, wandered the Bowery and asked a salesman at a restaurant supply store if they could take a look in the basement and see if there was anything worth grabbing. The salesman saw nothing but trash downstairs: just piles and piles of dishes dating back all the way to the turn of the century covered in dirt, dust, and whatever else ends up in a Lower East Side basement. Fishs Eddy was built on deadstock: the old, forgotten dishes, water glasses, and soup bowls made for famous hotels and little roadside diners. They found the leftovers, polished them up, and sold them as reasonably-priced treasures.
She’s quick to point out that in the 1980s, going to flea markets and estate sales to buy items to resell for a profit wasn’t really the big business it is today. “It would be impossible to open this sort of store today with all the pickers and everything,” she says.
Fast-forward to the present, and Fishs Eddy still draws anyone from locals driven by nostalgia, 20-somethings looking to decorate an apartment on a budget, and tourists from all over the world.
Starting the tours is part passion, part survival. “I didn’t know the fate of Fishs Eddy,” she says of the pandemic’s effects. Gaines, a small-business owner, had to keep her store afloat when there just weren’t any customers to sell to. In addition, she’s managing a chronic illness, though the only indication the engaging and energetic Gaines has been living with multiple sclerosis, is that she has a cane that she sometimes uses when she’s not handing over plates to look at.
Gaines has one of the most significant collections of old mugs, butter dishes, pitchers for coffee cream, and plates on the second floor of her shop, a collection that reflects the store’s 40 years of existence. Gaines doesn’t know how many plates are up there, but she says there are at least thousands of them, all stacked precariously atop each other all over the room.
Few restaurants have namesake plates anymore. Part of it is cost, but it’s also because factories that once dotted the Northeast into the Midwest have closed. In the heyday of American industry, the diner mugs and fancy steakhouse plates were examples of an industry that employed artisans and helped prop up local economies.
“Here’s one from one of the oldest kosher restaurants in New York,” she says as she pulls out a white plate with a dark red ring around it with Lou G. Siegel’s, founded in 1917 and closed in 1996. She pulls the next one from the pile, a white plate with the grey, circa 1930s with an art-deco logo of the famed 20th Century Limited train that pulled out of Grand Central from 1902 to 1967. Then another: “This one is from Yale. We have a lot from there. Also a lot of fraternities and lodges.”
She’s quick to point out that when you walk into the Fishs Eddy upstairs, you’re looking at history. “This is how early marketing,” she says. “This is how companies differentiated themselves.”
In addition to the stress of the pandemic, back in 2020, Fishs Eddy was running out of stuff to sell since the factories had closed.
Then a minor miracle took place: ”The last standing manufacturer” of restaurantware called. “They said they were shutting down the restaurantware service,” and they had a lot of for her if she wanted it. “I started crying.”
Gaines doesn’t say exactly how much she got from the manufacturer besides “enough to not worry about closing right now.” But there is something in that statement and the bigger dream that Gaines has about opening a museum.
It points to a continuing narrative for Gaines, the next chapter for her and the store that has provided a repository for the way we used to dine. Once all of the plates and glasses at Fishs Eddy are gone, that’s it. The largest gift shop for the smallest museum is providing one of the last links to a very specific and fascinating part of America’s story – and it’s something that Gaines wants to preserve.