The tanks in Maryland's oldest aquarium shop have held everything from electric eels to Prohibition bathtub gin.
Drop into Acme Tropical Gardens at 21st and St. Paul streets in the southern tier of Charles Village. The shop is a self-contained world of chugging pumps, bubbling air hoses and choirs of angel fish. The place looks like something out of a 1930s Hollywood studio. Even its windows appear to be coated with green algae.
Presiding over the operation is Bernard Dappie, 39, a rather shy man with long red hair who first remembers pressing his nose to the glass of an aquarium at this shop when he was 14 years old.
"I was always told they sold the bathtub gin from the room in the back of the store," says Dappie. "A tropical fish shop would have been a good cover. In later years, the owner took bets here."
The shop was established in the early 1930s. "The place was filled with animals -- flying squirrels, bantam roosters, ducks. And the electric eels. The place was famous for the electric eels. People came in just to look at them," Dappie says.
He first caught sight of the shop when accompanying his mother on shopping trips to the old North Avenue Market at North and Maryland avenues. As a student at St. Ann's parochial school, Northern High School and Towson State University, he never gave up his interest in animals or the 21st Street store.
"Every week we would stop there," recalls Ann Dappie, his mother. "It was a must. Animals are his life. Anything that crawled or swam. It all started with guppies."
Her son was fascinated by this pet shop, which is very unlike the variety found in suburban strip centers. Acme is tucked away on a side street. The shop has a wooden floor, and there are enough tanks to hold a tributary of the Amazon.
By the time he was a college student, Dappie had taken a part-time job at the shop. Ultimately, he bought the business from its former owner, James Petrlik.
The shop is maintained today much as it was 20 years ago, minus all the livestock. The shop's 1934 National Cash Register still rings up all sales. Neighborhood children stop in for goldfish and frogs; more experienced fish fanciers talk charcoal filters and water acidity.
"The exotic stuff stopped arriving in the 1970s. It became harder and harder to get weird things," Dappie says.
Acme has loyal customers who come as much for Dappie's knowledge of tropical fish and their diseases -- an area of specialized learning he picked up in a course at the University of Georgia -- as they do for fish and atmosphere.
"Look at this place," says Paul Leuba, a University of Baltimore student who lives in Hunt Valley. "It's not pretentious. The fish are a hundred times more healthy than [at] other stores. Bernie knows everything there is about fish."
Dappie estimates his business is divided evenly between sales of tropical fish and customized aquarium construction and maintenance. He has built tanks for the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, the New England Aquarium and several local Oriental restaurants.
One day this week, he was glazing the sides of the oldest aquarium he has ever worked on, a cast-iron model with a patent date of 1876. The tank is about as heavy as a small bathtub and was made to be built into the permanent plumbing of its owner's home.
Customers regularly bring in their old fish tanks in hopes that Dappie can make them bubble again. When they are too corroded or just fall apart, the tanks end up in the pump room. "It's the place where all the old tanks go to die," he says.