Photography by Mark Fleming
THE DELL MINI NETBOOK resting on a metal table near the entrance of Wulf’s Fish Market looks oddly out of place inside the bright Coolidge Corner storefront. With a scuffed wood floor, a few weathered ice-breaking tools mounted on one wall for décor, and an antiquated mechanical cash register, it’s a decidedly old-fashioned space. Even the workers, dressed in aprons, ties, and caps, appear to have been dropped in from the past.
In an era when specialty butchers have cult followings, “mixologists” sling Prohibition-era cocktails, and heirloom tomatoes are au courant, the popularity of a throwback institution like Wulf’s — virtually unchanged since Alan Wulf returned home from the Army to pick up a fillet knife and work alongside his father, Samuel, in 1968 — is a classic case of what’s-old-is-new. But the current surge at Wulf’s is due to more than foodies discovering the fishmonger. A recent change of ownership has also helped give the business a second wind. While Wulf has run the 85-year-old shop with the efficiency and focus of an Army sergeant for the past five decades, last year, at age 72, he decided it was time to enlist a new recruit.
So Wulf approached Christopher Edelman, a former chef and longtime patron, to see if he would consider buying the place. “I just couldn’t keep up,” says Wulf. “I told him, ‘If you can’t do it, I just won’t open on Monday.’” Edelman, 40, seemed like the perfect man for the job. Since 2006 he’s owned and operated another long-established fish company: Seafood Specialties in South Boston, which was founded in 1985 and under Edelman’s leadership now services locavore chefs such as Peter Davis of Henrietta’s Table, plus nationally renowned chefs like Thomas Keller of Per Se in New York. Edelman recently moved Seafood Specialties into a state-of-the-art distribution facility on Boston Fish Pier, where he oversees a squadron of 10 “warriors” — or fish cutters — who scale, gut, cut, and pack fish purchased directly off the pier each morning.
A shared appreciation for the old ways and the artistry of fish butchering made the two businesses — one retail, the other wholesale — a natural pairing. Wulf’s “does things the way they’ve done it for 85 years,” says Edelman, who speaks with the rapid patter of a horse-race caller. “No frills, no bells and whistles.” After a brief trial run (Edelman worked alongside Wulf in the store), it was a done deal: Edelman and his wife, Hannah, took over the shop.
Wulf’s only stipulation? That his cousin Rick Taylor, the shop’s longest-tenured employee, remain on the job — partly because Taylor is good at what he does, and partly for the benefit of the store’s patrons. “They’re like family,” Wulf says.
They’re also one of the reasons Edelman signed on. One recent Tuesday, he chatted with Ivy Beckles, who’s been coming to Wulf’s for four decades, to help her pick out her usual salmon. Later, he portioned out fillets under the watchful eye of a customer who stood over the cutting bench, pointing. Because the shop doesn’t take credit cards, many regulars put their purchases on a house account and receive a handwritten statement of their charges at the end of each month — just as their mothers did years ago.
These days, Wulf is still a fixture around the shop, but only because he wants to be. “I enjoy being there for a few hours,” he says as he cleans three mackerels. “Then I enjoy going home.” As for his new boss, Wulf seems pleased: “Chris owns Wulf’s as long as he keeps it the way it’s been.”