I was tempted to hold off on doing this interview until we got a little closer to Earth Day, but then I figured, if your mother was dying, would you wait until Mother’s Day to help her? I think not.
So, in the interest of saving Mother Earth from the onslaught she faces on a daily basis, I spoke with Tony Fisher, the affable owner of The Big Green Earth Store.
PGN: I hear a trace of an accent. TF: Yes, I’m from Knoxville, Tenn. I moved to Philadelphia after a seven-year stint in the Navy.
PGN: My nickname used to be Nashville; how close is that to where you were born? TF: About two hours: I actually lived in Nashville for a while. I lived in Knoxville, then Nashville, then Knoxville again.
PGN: So are you into country music? TF: Oh ... not so much. I mean, I’m into all sorts of music, but I’m more of a top-40s and dance-music kind of guy.
PGN: Do you have any siblings? TF: Well, that’s a little complicated too. I have seven birth brothers and sisters, but I was adopted as an only child.
PGN: Did you know about your siblings? TF: Well, I was adopted when I was 12; that’s why I went to Knoxville.
PGN: That must have been a big change, going from seven kids to flying solo. TF: I had a sister who died in infancy and a brother who died later on. So we were down to six, but yes, it was different.
PGN: Was it a relief to get some peace and quiet or did you miss the madness? TF: As you can imagine, being adopted at 12 meant there were some problems in the home. It was a bit of a shock. Just going from a family that was impoverished to a family that wasn’t wealthy by any means, but that was able to provide the things that I needed was a big change.
PGN: What’s a good memory from childhood? TF: No one’s ever asked me that. I guess a great memory would be when I joined the high-school band.
PGN: What did you play? TF: I did percussion, so I played snare drum for marching band and xylophone and bells for concert band.
PGN: Somehow I don’t picture you with a xylophone! TF: Well, the xylophone is a little different than a glockenspiel, but still ... and the bells, I was just good at them. I was all-state for them both.
PGN: So you were a band jock! TF: [Laughs.] Yeah, as jockish as you could get playing in the band.
PGN: Did you play any sports for real? TF: I did; I played football and I played baseball.
PGN: What position did you play in football? TF: I was center. Telling, I guess! [For the non-jocks: The center puts the football between his/her legs for the quarterback to grab.]
PGN: When did you come out? TF: It was kind of a process because I was in the military for seven years. Believe it or not, I kind of came out in the military, about two years into my service. I had a girlfriend at the time and one night I was at the Enlisted Club and got picked up by one of the other guys on the base. That started my coming-out process.
PGN: What did you do in the military? TF: I was a mechanic on the ship at first and then I became a legalman, which is the equivalent of a paralegal.
PGN: You are an interesting study of contrasts: from xylophone geek to football player, from grease monkey to paper pusher. TF: [Laughs.] I played the parts.
PGN: Did you always have feelings for boys? TF: Oh yeah, probably since I was in about middle school, but at that age, I didn’t really know what it was. After that first experience at the base, I kind of went back in the closet for a bit. Then when Bill Clinton became president, things were a little more relaxed. Also, I think everyone pretty much knew that I was ... different.
PGN: Were the sports and the military to try and counteract your feelings? TF: The sports were more to please my dad. Plus in Tennessee, it just wasn’t a place to figure yourself out. Thinking back, my first inkling was when I was watching “Entertainment Tonight.” I think it was the first year it was on the air. I remember sitting on the floor and my mom and dad sitting on the sofa and, at the very end of the show, they said, ‘There’s a group called The Weather Girls that has taken the gay community by storm in New York!” and they started playing the video of “It’s Raining Men,” and I remember seeing the guys dancing and thinking, “Hey, I think that’s what I am.” Of course, it took a while to come to grips with it. It’s still a process for me. I’m sure there are still people who don’t know or question. I don’t really wear it on my sleeve.
PGN: [Laughs.] Until now. TF: True.
PGN: I don’t know — my gaydar was able to peg you. TF: I know; I like how you just walked into my store and asked me if I was a member of the LGBT community!
PGN: Well, I figured if you said no, or gave me that “what’s that?” look, I’d just move on. TF: You could always say it was a social group!
PGN: [Laughs.] Enough of this madness, back to you. Did you go straight into the military from high school? TF: Yes, but while I was enlisted, I took a lot of college courses and, when I got out after seven years, I went back to school. I got a degree in sociology and social work from La Salle University.
PGN: What was the farthest you were stationed in the military? TF: I was on a ship, a guided missile destroyer and, in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, we were stationed in the Persian Gulf. Ironically, since we had already been there for five months, they sent us home! But since we were technically there at the start of the war, we got the ribbon that signified that we were a part of the Persian Gulf conflict!
PGN: Jumping ships, so to speak, how did you get from missile destroyers to saving the earth? TF: I worked for a company that did litigation support for the Environmental Protection Agency here in Philly for about five years. That’s what I used my paralegal experience for — helping with the prosecution of companies that were polluting the environment and that sort of thing. About three years ago, I wanted to buy a hemp sweater. I couldn’t find one in any local stores, only online. So I decided to open a place where people could actually see and feel things for themselves instead of blindly buying them online. We’ve been open about two years; we had a location on Market Street first, then closed that and moved here last April.
PGN: What gets you angry? TF: I get angry on a daily basis. When I see people littering, it drives me crazy. I got angry with a woman yesterday who threw a cigarette butt on the ground right in front of my store. I have worked with a number of nonprofits over the years and, I remember when I worked at 13th and Chestnut, I saw this woman just open up her car door and dump a bunch of her trash right onto the street. I was livid. There’s no excuse for that. It drives me crazy, but more than that is when I see cruelty to animals. I’m a big animal person. I’m into animal rights and wildlife protection, which coincides with wanting to help the earth. Protecting the land and saving habitats to save animals go hand in hand.
PGN: Do you have any pets? TF: I have two dachshunds, Collie and Angel. They are the loves of my life. I love animals. Did you see our Wish Wall? We have a wall with little slots in it and you can rent a slot for a dollar a month or $10 for a year and put a little message in it: 100 percent of the money goes to an organization that helps animals. Currently, we’re raising money for a group called Rogers’ Rescues. It was founded by a woman named Anne Marie Rogers and they are an all-breed dog-rescue operation that rescues dogs from overcrowded shelters.
PGN: What’s a favorite thing in the store? TF: Our refill stations by far. It was my idea. I used to gripe about myself and how quickly I would fill up a recycle bin. It always seemed to be filled with laundry-detergent bottles and cleaning products. So we’ve teamed up with Sun & Earth natural cleaning products. People can bring their own bottles in and get refills on all-purpose cleaner and laundry detergent. They are a local manufacturer and they make premium products. It’s less expensive than what you buy at the store and better for you, your family and the earth. Many people aren’t aware that most commercial detergents have phosphates in them that destroy the groundwater once it seeps into our system. A few years ago, part of the Schuylkill River was a dead zone, in part because of all the phosphate being dumped into it. It killed the oxygen in the water and the fish died. So even though the refills help in that we’re not recycling so many bottles, the real benefit is using a product that is not going to harm the environment. It’s win-win.
PGN: It’s all connected. I think people don’t understand the ripple effect of everything we do. How do you find your inventory? TF: It was very difficult in the beginning. We try the products out and research them to make sure it’s not just greenwashing. We’ve had some products we found were somewhat greenwashed and we discontinued them.
PGN: What is greenwashing? TF: Greenwashing is when companies try to represent their products or services as “green,” “clean” or “environmentally friendly” when in fact they are not. Usually they spend more money on advertising that they’re green than practicing green policies. There’s a lot of misrepresentation in advertising and not a lot of regulation. You get things like “energy-efficient” electronics that contain hazardous materials, products that claim to be 100-percent natural but don’t tell you that the “natural” ingredients they choose to use — like formaldehyde — are hazardous or claiming to be CFC-free, even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago. It’s really important to check carefully. Just because a product has flowers or a forest on it doesn’t mean it is green or eco-friendly.
PGN: What store, other than this one, would you choose to max out your credit card? TF: Probably Trader Joe’s. I like their products and their price points. And Matthew Izzo! If Tony Sparacino was still alive, it would be his store because he was a good friend and I loved his shop.
PGN: Your tagline is “You don’t have to be a superhero to save the planet.” Who is a hero of yours? TF: I’d say Barack Obama. I don’t think he’s getting enough credit for all the positive things he’s been doing, especially on the environmental forefront. And I enjoy the liberal media like MSNBC. I’m a bit of a political junkie and I could watch that station for hours. And people like the Clintons, who try to stand up for the common people.
PGN: Most unusual piece you own? TF: I have a lot of conversation pieces, especially artwork that I’ve gotten from the student sale at Moore College of Art each year. I have a tapestry that’s really beautiful and some things that I’ve colleted since I traveled with the military. My mother has a lot of those.
PGN: Any hobbies? TF: I love to ski. [Laughs.] I almost said water sports, but that gives the wrong impression! Let me rephrase that: I like to swim and ski on water.
PGN: Are you a vegetarian? TF: No. I was a pescatarian for a while, which is only eating fish and vegetables. I recently added poultry back into my diet but I haven’t had red meat or pork in years. I’m trying to cut the fish and chicken back out, but it’s hard. I love to eat.
PGN: What is one thing you swore you would never do when you were young that you have done as an adult? TF: Turn into my parents. I swear I find myself saying things that my parents would have said to me. I don’t have kids, but I have my dogs, so I’m like a parent now.
PGN: Any superstitious rituals? TF: I don’t know if it’s superstitious, but I do cleanse the store every now and then, getting rid of the evil spirits with a sage smudge stick.
PGN: Something you’d do if you weren’t afraid? TF: I wish I could have experienced the adrenalin rush that must come with piloting a jet, but I’m afraid of heights.
PGN: What Olympic event would you want to compete in? I’m guessing skiing. TF: No, I always wanted to do gymnastics, but my parents would never let me. My father wanted me to do more manly sports. It was Tennessee, after all. PGN: What did they do? TF: My mom was a seamstress in a factory and did some tailoring at a higher-end shop. My dad worked in the factory at what was then Union Carbide.
PGN: How were they when you came out? TF: It’s weird, I told my mother about 15 years ago and I never really told my dad. He knows, but we’ve never talked about it. His way of showing me that he’s OK with it is that every time I go home, the first thing he does when I get off the plane is tell me a new gay joke. It’s never mean — there’s not a hurtful bone in his body — it’s just an icebreaker, I guess, to make me feel comfortable.
PGN: Something you enjoy that others think is a chore? TF: Retail. I love retail. I love interacting with people. On a limited basis!
PGN: Partner? TF: No, I’m happily single.
PGN: What else does Big Green Earth have to offer? TF: Well, we have a lot of great products. Everything in the store is made from recycled or reused materials that reduce the harmful waste in our landfills. But on top of that, you can drop off old products such as cell phones, eyeglasses and batteries to be recycled. We want to be your guide to a green lifestyle!
The Big Green Earth 934 South St. (267) 909-8661 www.biggreenearthstore.com