DETROIT – Kevin Johnson loves fish. So when the owner of the aquarium supply shop where he'd worked for years announced the store was closing, he was adrift.
“I was shocked,” the 49-year-old told the Detroit Free Press. “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 local residents, who stepped in to make sure there wasn't yet another subtraction from their neighborhood.
Johnson became infatuated with aquariums at age 7. He began breeding fish at home and eventually started his own fish tank-cleaning business called Kaptain Kev's Kleaning.
It was natural that he'd wind up at Exotic Aquarium, the neighborhood fish store on Detroit's west side since 1951, a short walk from his house. For 20 years, he devoted himself to that store.
When the old owner announced it was closing, Johnson offered to buy the fish, 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.
Another former employee, Tador Hawkins, 23, 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,” said Hawkins, who's now Johnson's manager. “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. Johnson and Hawkins, who'd initially taken a job across the street hawking cell phones, often toiled until 3 a.m. getting it ready for opening day.
The store is half the size of the old one, marked only by small handmade signs. It's still Johnson's work in progress.
But it's a living part of the neighborhood, thanks to 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.”