It's better not to touch the electric catfish at the Aquarium Center in Randallstown.
The 8-inch, brown and bulbous creature packs a 600-volt jolt for predators, prey or the foolishly curious.
Luckily, the freshwater native of the Congo River Basin of West Africa prefers a reclusive life these days, hiding in a section of white pipe at the bottom of its tank.
But it's not alone. There are more than 100,000 fresh- and saltwater fish at the Aquarium Center at the Randallstown Plaza Shopping Center in Baltimore County. They occupy more than 500 aquariums in a 12,000-square-foot facility that its owners say makes it the largest store of its kind in the Baltimore and Washington areas.
Outside of the National Aquarium, it may also have some of the area's most exotic creatures, including freshwater stingrays, barracudas and piranhas, as well as saltwater sharks, butterfly fish and lion fish.
The inventory is so extensive that Dennis Hare and Richard Graham, owners of the shop, have the tanks hooked to 10 giant centralized filtration systems that flush each tank's water three to four times an hour.
The filtration systems give the staff of the store -- which numbers about 40 full- and part-time workers -- time to keep an eye on the chemical balance of water in the tanks.
"Even if we had 200 individual tanks, if they each had their own filtration system, we'd never have time to monitor them all," Hare explains.
The 51-year-old president of the Aquarium Center says he believes his store is one of the ten top-grossing fish and aquarium shops in the United States. He does not count pet stores that sell items unrelated to fish and aquariums.
A purist who has been in the business off and on since 1958, Hare says he has resisted the temptation to carry dogs, cats, birds and their supplies.
His Randallstown operation, which opened in another nearby shopping center in 1981, has grown 12 times its original size, drawing customers from as far away as York County, Pa., and Northern Virginia. Among the store's customers is the National Aquarium, which has purchased Aquarium Center fish for public exhibits.
Hare says he and partner Graham, who is vice president, advertise heavily in both television and print. And, despite offers to establish a chain of stores, they have refused.
"We want to put all our eggs in one basket," Hare explains.
The previous owner of two other aquarium shops that he eventually sold, Hare says he has some theories about the success of his latest venture.
"Baltimore people, and I'm not sure why this is, are more in tune with the environment than other cities, particularly inland cities," he says. "One of the reasons is that we've always had access to good fish in this area."
Also, Hare says, the Aquarium Center is a discount operation that has adopted a popular pledge among retailers -- everyday low prices. The store rarely has sales.
While Graham handles the aquarium, supplies and food side of the operation, Hare handles the fish.
Hare seems to enjoy the business. Reaching into a tank to grab a spotted rafael catfish, he shows a visitor how the diminutive marine creature squawks when taken out of water.
Hare says he once thought of trading fish sales for the restaurant business.
But, he explains, "If there's anything more demanding than the fish business, it's the restaurant business."