Loving what he does brings satisfaction to Cloquet fish store owner
Walking into Jim Engberg's aquarium shop in Cloquet is a little like walking into the undersea world itself. Soft music and deep, ocean-blue walls provide the perfect backdrop for the play of light reflecting through the water of dozens of aquari...
Walking into Jim Engberg's aquarium shop in Cloquet is a little like walking into the undersea world itself. Soft music and deep, ocean-blue walls provide the perfect backdrop for the play of light reflecting through the water of dozens of aquariums, softly undulating with hundreds of tropical and saltwater fish. And to Engberg, it represents not only his life's occupation, but his overriding passion....
Engberg grew up in Duluth, and from the time he was a little boy, he was fascinated by all sorts of animals and fish.
"When I was small, I liked going to Shopper's City where they had a little pet shop, just crammed with aquariums," he recalled. "That's where I always wanted to get dumped off when mom did her shopping. I was fascinated with it, and that's where the aquarium stuff got started."
It was at the age of eight that Engberg got his first fish tank.
"My first fish tank was a little 10-gallon aquarium," he related, "and it had tons of ornaments in it. It was hard to even see the fish! I mixed all the breeds of fish that you weren't supposed to mix together, and they'd sometimes fight or even eat each other! It was a matter of trial and error. In those days we didn't have all the computers and books available to learn about all that sort of thing. I'd pick up information and learn as I went along."
It didn't take long before Engberg's aquarium "habit" took off - in a big way.
"When I was a kid, both sides of my bed were lined with aquariums," he said. "In order to make my bed - or even get into it - I had to go in from the end!"
Even as a child, Engberg said he was always pretty good about accepting the responsibility to take care of his animals and fish and keep their cages and fish tanks clean.
"I had a lot of other animals, too, including hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, dogs and birds, so I had to clean everything," he said. "That was my choice, because my mom said if I wanted to have them, I'd have to clean up after them."
Engberg attended Morgan Park High School until it was closed and then went on to graduate from Duluth Cathedral in 1985.
He started his undergraduate work at St. Cloud State and later transferred to The College of St. Scholastica. After six years of study and coming within a semester of earning his business degree, he decided to go to work for Northwest Airlines, where he stayed for the next 13 years.
"It was a great job, and I got to see the world," he related, "but when you work for a company that large, you see a lot of people who aren't always happy with their work."
That's one of the things that started him thinking about what he truly wanted in life.
During his time with Northwest, Engberg was based out of Minneapolis and lived on Island Lake north of Duluth. Even as an adult, he still had animals at home, so he would commute back and forth to take care of his animals as often as he could and pay someone else to do it when he was gone.
"I earned great pay and great benefits with Northwest," Engberg said, "but I was gone so much I realized it was time to choose, especially since I wasn't getting any younger."
Initially, he continued working for Northwest part time and the rest of the time he managed a fish store in Duluth, a job he loved.
In the meantime, he moved from his Island Lake home to a big, three-story house in Piedmont Heights in Duluth, where he lived for two years.
"At the time, I decided I wasn't going to live in the country and do the animal thing any more," he admitted. "I was going to live in a nice house overlooking the lake. It didn't last - after two years I thought, 'I've got to get out of here!' So I sold my house in Duluth and I found a little place in Barnum. I was actually looking for another place that was listed, and I got lost and found this other one. You couldn't even see the house from the road because the land was solid poplar trees, but there was a For Sale sign out at the road. I drove up the driveway and said, 'This is it!' It was in bad disrepair, and my real estate agent discouraged me from buying it. But I told her, 'No, I want this place!' The property is beautiful, on a dead end road and quiet. I had to be a handyman for the first couple of years I was there, and I even cleared pastureland for my horses. I gutted the house inside and out, and now it's just perfect."
Engberg went back to surrounding himself with animals once again - emus, horses, a Vietnamese pot belly pig, ducks, chickens, peacocks, rabbits, ring neck doves, diamond doves, cockateels, parrots, a Russian tortoise and dogs.
"I don't have fish there because I've got so many to take care of at the store," he said.
"It's a lot of work," he admitted. "I get up at 4 a.m. every day, feed everybody, and then I go out and clean aquariums for businesses in Duluth, Moose Lake, and several other places from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Then I open the shop at 10 a.m., work until 6 p.m., get home at 6:30 p.m., feed the animals again, feed myself, and collapse. And then I do it all over again!"
He said he wouldn't live his life any other way, however.
"They're always in a good mood and happy, and it's nice to come home to that," he reflected.
Along with the move to Barnum, Engberg began to consider opening his own store.
"The whole time I worked at the fish store in Duluth," Engberg said, "everyone kept saying to me, 'You should open your own store,' but I just wasn't ready. Finally, after nine years, I decided it was time. I looked all over for a location for my shop - in Duluth, Cloquet, Barnum, Moose Lake. It truly doesn't matter where you are with this business. It sounds crazy, but it's true. I wanted maximum space and minimum costs to keep the overhead down. When I walked in here [First National Plaza], it was an instant match."
Engberg said he felt comfortable in knowing the business and all that needed to be done to make it succeed.
"In the last 10 years, everything about aquarium keeping has gotten a lot easier," he related. "The equipment is easier to use and keep up, it's quieter and the technology is better now, especially for salt water tanks. Now, with access to information on the Internet, there are 15-year-old kids who are doing it better than I am! They educate themselves and they have the chat rooms to talk with others who share the same interest in fish."
The Internet has worked well for Engberg, too, because thanks to his Web site, customers now come into his shop from all over the state from places as far afield as Ely, the Twin Cities and Roseau.
"For things such as the salt water corals," he explained, "people will drive the distance to see what I've got and then shop price and selection. It's different having fish than when you're selling something like shoes, where people are content to buy them right there in their own towns. But to see something alive is different. They know you have goldfish, for example, but they're probably different than the goldfish, or the salt water fish, or whatever, hat they have in their home town. And they'll drive to see that."
Engberg opened Underground Aquatics in Cloquet last September.
"I had people coming here before I was open because rumors had already started and word seemed to spread like wildfire!" he said. "It's kind of a catchy business in that respect, because even if people don't have fish and don't want them, they'll still come and look. It lowers your blood pressure to watch fish in aquariums."
Engberg truly enjoys being a part of the local community and said he takes every opportunity to sing its praises, especially to customers from out of town.
"Cloquet has got great food," he said. "I don't think a lot of people from outside the area realize that. And the rent is reasonable here, too. The people are so nice, too. When I moved to Barnum in 2004, I'd be driving along and people I didn't even know would wave at me - and I realized they were doing it just to be nice! My family actually homesteaded in Barnum when they came here from Ellis Island after arriving on the boat from Sweden. Their homestead is still there, and a lot of them are buried in Sandy Lake Cemetery."
Engberg's business is thriving and he's expanding across the hallway and opening an outlet store for aquariums and other dry goods in Duluth. And though he remains the sole employee and works seven days a week, he's happy.
"I know that by doing what I'm doing, I'm never going to get rich," he admitted, "but when you like going to work every day, that's a blessing."