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Andrew Bunya-Ananta figures he's had a fishnet in his hand since the womb. Some people know early on they want to be doctors or dentists, but ever since he was a kid growing up at his dad Peter's various fish stores, Bunya-Ananta knew he would be the proprietor of an aquarium store that would have gorgeous tanks and glorious fish, where customers would come to learn about fish, buy fish, talk fish. It would be less a fish shop than a fish center, and would be nothing less than the fulfillment of his destiny. Now, at the age of 22, Bunya-Ananta stands in the store he dreamed about creating, Aquarium Connection in Thousand Oaks.
"My name is famous in the fish world," says Bunya-Ananta, who has a sweet face and a confident, playful demeanor. "My grandfather [Kit Bunya-Ananta] was the first one to start importing exotic fish from Thailand. He built a small business up into a multimillion-dollar wholesale company."
Wholesalers want to know him. Retailers want to murder him. When he goes to buy fishstock at the nucleus of the world's aquarium business known as "Fish Alley" — several exotic-fish outlets and showrooms clustered on the streets near Los Angeles International Airport, including one run by his uncle — he often sees people do a double take when he casually drops his last name.
"Oh," they inquire, "you're starting up a fish shop?"
At the moment, Bunya-Ananta's Aquarium Connection, open less than a year, is the proverbial small fish in a big pond. But he is getting set to blow the competition out of the water — the jellyfish tanks alone are going to rock the ornamental-fish trade. And he has great plans to host coral-fragment swaps to coincide with the Southern California Marine Aquarium Society's annual "Reefapalooza," as well as wine tasting on the back patio, classes, lectures and barbecues (but not of the fish).
You can easily spend hours in Bunya-Ananta's store, watching the restless circling of the black-tip reef sharks in their room-size tank, or contemplating the miniature underwater forests, so ethereal and haunting. I want to say that live-plant tanks are the shop's specialty, but really, everything is a specialty. Though Bunya-Ananta himself doesn't eat seafood — how could you, with the doelike eyes of the dog-faced puffer staring deep into your soul every day? — there are fish enough in his sleek, immaculate shop to fashion the world's most delicious bouillabaisse: shrimp, saltwater fish, freshwater fish, crabs, eels, sea horses, octopuses.
Customers here run the gamut of folks looking for salvation through fish: from the Merrill Lynch broker who commissioned a feng shui goldfish tank in his office (it had to hold an odd number of fish in certain colors) to the elderly lady who spent $300 on a tank for her 99-cent betta, because you can't put a price tag on love. He's done high-end tank design for people who think $175 purple tangs, $1,600 dragon moray eels or $9,500 koi are no big deal. The store is surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in Southern California (Malibu and Westlake are within leaping distance). But there's also a constant stream of kids coming in for run-of-the-mill guppies.
Aquarium Connection is where you'll realize that the saltwater-fish-aquarium hobby is a lot like collecting designer shoes — addictive, colorful, expensive, impractical, apt to get you in hot water with your significant other — and that the space you've allotted to contain your acquisitions (closet, fish tank) is far too small. Soon you're knocking down walls in your house to make room.
Nanocubes are the gateway drug. Before you know it, you're clearing out your swimming pool to make room for the bass. This, by the way, really happens. People, evidently, fall so much in love with their fish they feel compelled to swim with them. Spending fifteen grand on koi in one day, as a client recently did, is typical. Insane, but typical. It could be worse. From the department of "Why buy a house or a car or finance your daughter's college tuition when you can buy a fish": A fellow from Japan, which corners the market on extreme-spending behavior, owns an $80,000 fish. Eighty thousand dollars. For a fish.
To run the shop, Bunya-Ananta has assembled his "power team" or "triple threat." Brandon McConnell, who wears his hair in a dorsal-fin-like Mohawk, specializes in sharks. He takes care of shark tanks for major rap stars (who choose to remain anonymous). Keith Amador is the jellyfish specialist. If it weren't for Bunya-Ananta, Amador would be on a tropical island somewhere. He went in to get worms from Bunya-Ananta's dad's store and walked out with a job offer from Andrew. Amador was Bunya-Ananta's childhood mentor and it was like bringing the old sensei back from retirement. (Whenever they travel, Amador's wife says, "Honey, do we have to stop at every single damned fish store along the way?") Thanks to Amador, Aquarium Connection is the only store in California that sells octagonal, carousel-like, round-cornered jelliquariums, which Amador designed, and which simulate the ocean currents.
Bunya-Ananta is into coral reefs ("They're just my style") because it's like having your own small piece of the ocean. In time, with global warming marching steadily along, the only reefs left won't be in the wild but in people's living rooms. He keeps a massive tank of beautiful coral, all grown from 1-inch fragments, as an example of what you can do with tiny specimens if you optimize your mix of live sand, live rock and water.