The big white sign does not give much away. Tucked in between a dry-cleaners and an off-licence, this place is easy to miss amongst the buzz of Bethnal Green Road. But as you enter the front door, a sense of underwater life unfolds, with an aquatic atmosphere far away from the bustling sounds of East London.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Wholesale Tropicals, as the sign reads, is more than just a shop selling fish.
While the fish swim aimlessly in circles, staff and customers try to negotiate the space between aquariums and accessories. It is much bigger than it looks from outside; there are six aisles with three storeys of fish and more tanks upstairs. The constant ringing on the bell by the door reveals that it is a popular spot for fish-lovers and curious customers alike.
Terry Jones, 42, has been working in the shop for 26 years alongside his father, who established the business in 1967. Born and bred in Bethnal Green, he recalls the changes he has seen since starting to help out in the shop at the age of 8: “Back then”, he says, “tropical fish tanks were kept warm by a candle”.
The range of customers is as varied as their reasons for visiting. “We get everyone in here. From the woman who came in today to buy her son a goldfish, right up to the mad fanatics who want anything which they then can breed”.
Exactly how many different species there are in the shop is hard to know. Today’s delivery, Terry explains, contains about 100 different species shipped in from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.
Scott Jones, 19, the third generation of the Jones family, unpacks boxes of the new arrivals. Some are as exotic looking as they sound (take, for example, the horse face loach), but humble guppies and mini-turtles can also be found swimming here.
Terry’s favourite is the catfish, which, he says, it is possible to stroke and hand-feed. Although a fish might not suit everyone’s idea of a cuddly pet, it seems to be a popular choice and perhaps a fitting one to inner-city life.
“Fish are great as a pet for Londoners. The flats here are small and a lot of people don’t have time for cats or dogs. If you get into fish as a hobby it can get quite addictive.”
If you’re not sure whether a pet fish is for you, you are welcome to just admire the colourful creatures whilst soaking up the spa-like ambience the blue light and sound of bubbles create. This is a popular activity amongst locals.
“Some of the people that come in often I have seen here since they were young. Now they have their own kids and come in with them,” Terry says proudly. Although he insists that a chat with him does not need to be fish-related, it seems that the topic will inevitably come up.
Or as Terry chooses to put it: “Here we only really know two things: How to drive a car and how to breed fish. Now that’s a niche!”
Wholesale Tropicals can be found at 220 Bethnal Green Road
Mon – Wed, Fri: 10:30 – 18:00
Thu: 10:30 – 14:00
Sat: 9:30 – 18:00
Sun: 9:30 – 13:30
Tel: 020 7739 5356