Inside the Aqualand Aquarium Center showroom

Lynda, a mata mata turtle, has lived at Aqualand Aquarium Center for 40 years.
Lynda, a mata mata turtle, has lived at Aqualand Aquarium Center for 40 years.

Lynda is unlike any turtle Jon Kuehlman has ever seen. She’s a mata mata turtle from the Amazon River, and she pokes a tiny tube-like nose out of the water to breathe. Her head can’t retract into her shell, so her main defense is camouflage. She arrived at Aqualand Aquarium Center 40 years ago, when she was the size of a dinner plate and her owner couldn’t care for her anymore — the shop often takes in fish that have outgrown their owners’ aquariums.

“When the fish die, she helps recycle that. She can take down some fairly good size fish,” Kuehlman said. “We always like to say nothing goes to waste around here.”

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Generations of families have visited Lynda at Aqualand, which originally opened for business in 1966. Customers visit from across the upper Midwest and Canada, and parents bring their kids to feed the turtles and koi. Kuehlman doesn’t have a firm count on the number of aquariums, but said it’s easily a couple hundred. They have expanded the showroom over time, aiming to offer the largest selection of aquariums in the state. Some are hexagons made to fit into the corners of South Minneapolis homes, while others feature curved glass and reach sizes up to 210 gallons.

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“A lot of independent stores have fallen by the wayside,” Kuehlman said. “It’s a tough business to be in.”

Aqualand is a family-run business that began with Kuehlman’s father, Dennis Kuehlman, who was always fascinated with fish. He cleaned aquariums at drug stores and started selling fish at age 16 out of his parent’s Minneapolis basement. There weren’t many tropical fish outlets at the time, and he started attracting so many customers that his parents decided to find him a storefront.

The shop operated at 54th & Nicollet until the Minneapolis Fire Department took over the site in 1992. As a kid, Jon helped his dad with deliveries and helped clean and dust the store. His grandfather helped package fish food, and his grandmother served as bookkeeper. Jon’s wife helps with the upkeep, and his daughter selects decorations for the tanks — characters from the movie Frozen are on display.

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Dennis operated as many as nine stores at one time in the Twin Cities, including locations at the Knollwood Mall and Galleria, before he started selling them off in the 80s.

“He used to tell customers that the one thing he would regret is he lost the world’s best hobby when he turned it into a business,” Jon said.

Now retired, Dennis lives in Florida.

“I had a sense of wanting to continue the family business,” Jon said.

Aqualand_7The current shop at 5355 Chicago Ave. is located six blocks from Jon’s home, which is convenient when shipments of new fish arrive at the airport in the middle of the night. Aqualand_4

They only sell tropical creatures — varieties include the piranha-like pacu, discus fish, rainbow fish, tiny shrimp and guppies. Betta fish, which can be found living in mud puddles in Thailand, can live happily in cubicles to provide a bit of life at the office, Jon said.

Jon can tell you the state of the economy based on the type of aquariums he’s selling. Saltwater tanks require more upkeep, and their sales took a dive during the recession as customers increasingly favored freshwater tanks.

The shop provides installations, deliveries and monthly maintenance services. Before the store opens each morning, Jon said he enjoys visiting dentist offices and schools to maintain aquariums. He said it’s no coincidence that fish inhabit so many doctor’s offices.

“It helps lower blood pressure and makes people relax,” he said.

Hale-Page-Diamond Lake neighbors and Mentoring Peace through Art partnered on a project to paint Aqualand’s mural. Jon said the mural is a much-appreciated deterrent to graffiti. “We haven’t had one problem,” he said.
Hale-Page-Diamond Lake neighbors and Mentoring Peace through Art partnered on a project to paint Aqualand’s mural. Owner Jon Kuehlman said the mural is a much-appreciated deterrent to graffiti. “We haven’t had one problem,” he said.

Jon said staff take care to ensure water quality is high and fish are well kept.

“We want to see people truly have success,” he said. “We’re not trying to push something out the door that isn’t going to work for them.”

Jon said he’s always learning something new. There is always a new species to research, water to change and fish to feed.

“This is a daily task for me,” he said. “We’re not open 365 days a year, but there is a person involved in feeding the fish on a daily basis.”

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