Shadyside species of indie pet shop survives 40 years


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The heyday of Ma-and-Pa retail may be over, but some stores plug along by filling a niche, offering better personal service than the competition or retaining resolutely loyal customers.

Ginny Smiley can claim at least the latter at Smiley's Pet Pad in Shadyside.

Thanks to a "cash-mob" campaign of the Shadyside Action Coalition, Smiley's more than doubled its Saturday business three days ago. Cash mobs organize to show a single day of support for local businesses.

The 2,000-square-foot store at 215 S. Highland Avenue notched its 40th year in business within weeks of the opening of a PetSmart in a large store on Centre Avenue, a few blocks north in East Liberty.

"I need more time to see what the impact will be," Ms. Smiley said of the new competition. She already was competing with a nearby Petland on Penn Avenue in East Liberty. But the cash mob gave her hope.

"It was a resounding success," she said. "A lot of people came throughout the day, which was kind of nice. I had envisioned tons of people showing up at once and thought, 'Oh God, what am I going to do?'

"But it was all day, and people spent $30, $40, $50. Everybody commented that they were happy we've survived 40 years and that they want to keep us on the planet."

A Shadyside resident, she started working for David Soltz, who owned The Pet Pad on Walnut Street, in 1972.

"He was looking for a part-time worker, and I started as a cage cleaner," she said. "Back then, we sold caimans, iguanas, snakes, hamsters, gerbils and squirrel monkeys. You could buy a squirrel monkey for $33."

The store has moved twice, first to a larger space on Walnut. Ms. Smiley bought the store in 1995 when Mr. Soltz decided to move to Florida, and she found the current space in a strip mall with a parking lot in 2001. On the store's website, Ms. Smiley wrote that she made the move off Walnut "to see if I could start working for myself instead of the landlord."

It is the permanent home of Sam and Toby, two languid cats, and the temporary home of a variety of birds in boarding cages.

I wandered in last week after hearing that City Council had honored Smiley's for its longevity with a proclamation by Councilman Bill Peduto. A customer who didn't want her name in the paper said she shops at Smiley's to keep a Bernese mountain dog fed "and out of a sense of loyalty."

Joanne Haughton of Blawnox began shopping at the Pet Pad because it carried her brand of dog food. The other day she was seeking a remedy for her dog's creaky joints.

"I believe in supporting local businesses," she said. "These huge stores are not human scale, and they are all the same no matter where you go."

When the deliveryman arrived with dog food on a hand truck, an African grey parrot in a cage began wolf whistling, making kissing sounds and sang the six-note progression that prompts fans to yell "charge!"

Brad Scheidmantel, the store manager for 14 years, helped with the boxes while Ms. Smiley showed me the birds. Another parrot said words I couldn't quite understand while the African grey continued the barrage of flirting.

"There used to be 147 independent pet supply stores in the Pittsburgh area," Ms. Smiley said. "Now there might be 10."

The store is open seven days a week, in part to compete, but Sam and Toby and the bird visitors need to be checked on and fed every day, "so I figured we might as well be open," she said. "People thank me for being open on Sunday, and I always say, 'It's good to be here.' "

I like to spend my money in the city, too, but I have been driving to McKnight Road for my pet supplies at a national chain because I knew of no other options.

There's no shame in buying from national chains. Their prices are sometimes better and sometimes not, but they employ local people. The store I have been going to isn't so big; I like human scale, too.

But the person who puts her heart into a little store that she has shepherded for decades and who knows her customers fills more than a retail need.

In an email, Mr. Peduto described the store and Ms. Smiley as "like tiles in a neighborhood mosaic. By themselves they stand out through their uniqueness and vibrancy, but when put together with others, they tell a story and contribute to the image and culture of a community."

intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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