Managing the House that Herring Built

Johanna Shipman ’00

By Marjorie Ingall

Johanna Shipman ’00 is the store manager of Russ & Daughters on New York’s Lower East Side. Known as “The Louvre of Lox,” this smoked fish emporium inspires the kind of love that fuels epic poetry. (The late celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain said of it, “Russ & Daughters occupies that rare and tiny place on the mountaintop reserved for those who are not just the oldest and the last, but also the best.”)

Shipman grew up in a small town in Maine, though she visited the shop as a small child. “I remember I was thrilled that it was called Russ & Daughters,” she laughs. “Daughters! I’d never seen anything like that before!” In fact, the store is reportedly the first business in the country with “Daughters” in its name. Joel Russ, who worked his way up from a pushcart to a brick-and-mortar store, had no sons. So he taught the business of belly lox and babka to his daughters Hattie, Ida, and Anne.

Shipman wasn’t supposed to go into fishmongering either. She studied comparative literature at Barnard and was a Centennial Scholar, immersing herself in classical myths and epic poetry. “All the Latin I studied made my kitchen Spanish so much better,” she reflects. “And comparative literature taught me that even though each person’s experiences are different, we’re all people; we all have a shared humanity.”

After graduation, she meandered into a job at Bobby Flay’s now-shuttered Bar Americain, across from Lincoln Center. “I was the day bartender,” she says. “I served a lot of old men martinis and they told me about their sadnesses.” She didn’t want a professional career. “I wanted to be able to quit a job and take a day off to ride my bike and read novels and go to the beach and not feel bad about it,” she says.

Eventually she answered a Craigslist ad to do customer service at Russ & Daughters. Before long, they asked her to become the manager. She had to think about it. “But I feel very committed to this place now,” she says. “It’s a beautiful little store. I was just away for two weeks working in Madrid, where we did a pop-up, and I walked back in here on my first day home and was blown away all over again by how beautiful it is. Good job guys! You didn’t ruin it while I was away!”

She loves expediting orders during the holiday rush. “I get to stand on a little stool in front of the counter and tell people what to do: ‘You cut this!’ ‘You cut that!’ ‘You bring me this!’ Other people hate it, but I love it. If I had my life to do over, I’d be an air traffic controller.” She doesn’t even mind when high-strung customers yell at her. “I used to be timid; it took me a while to understand this culture in which you’re yelled at and yell back. It’s satisfying, in a way. And it’s made me better at saying ‘no’ to things I don’t want to do, saying ‘no’ to guys on the street who want to talk to me. It’s very freeing.”

Bonus: She’s learned to slice fish. “A lot of people say it’s meditative. But to me it’s satisfying to do something well,” she says. “You’re doing this repetitive thing and every now and then it’s perfect. The perfect slice.”

 

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, and the author of Mamaleh Knows Best.