Twelve years ago, I went into a small reptile store that I had found in the Yellow Pages. I told the salesclerk that I wanted an iguana. He spent the next thirty minutes explaining to me exactly why I probably did not want an iguana (they get enormous, can become very aggressive without daily handling, they need specialized lighting) and showing me many alternatives that would be a much better fit for my lifestyle and expectations. And he was right. I had imagined a gigantic, dog-tame lizard wandering around my house like a dinosaur on the prowl without ever considering what the animal actually needed.
I listened to his advice. He recommended a leopard gecko. They didn’t have any at the moment, but that was okay. I could find the right caging, get everything set up, and wait for the day I could take home my lizard. I waited. And waited. It was the wrong season for baby leopard geckos. I already knew it would be worth waiting for. I could trust that this shop would not sell me something I was not ready for.
I spent my wait studying books and learning what to look for in a leopard gecko. Some of us search a whole lifetime without success, but I am happy to say that I found the lizard of my dreams.
And in a few months, he turned into this:
After about 8 months, every bit of black had disappeared, leaving him a solid orange. He was my pride and joy. And he needed some friends. Girl friends. All purchased at the same wonderful shop. The employees knew me on sight and were always happy to show me their newest arrivals. They helped me find an incubator so that I could start raising the little critters on my own and gave me solid advice about incubating and working with neonates.
When the Padawan was 2 days old, my first baby geckos hatched. It made an impression on all of us. When my daughter was asked about the exciting new arrival in our house, she talked about the geckos.
Over the years, I expanded to new and exciting animals. I got my first bearded dragon, a couple of corn snakes, a ball python or two, all of them purchased from my favorite little shop, and most of them bred by the owner.
He had a big sale every year that was like a small reptile show, exhibiting and selling species and color varieties that were hard to come by, giving away free hot dogs and t-shirts. He even brought in the local reptile vet to answer questions for customers and encourage them to get proper vet care when necessary. The prize for the top salesperson was bragging rights. A note was affixed to a tacky blue ceramic baby bootie bank for the next whole year. Legend had it that anyone who won The Blue Shoe three years straight would get a trip to Hawaii. I did that, the note reading “Heather’s shoe forever and ever.”
Yesterday, I worked my last shift at that store. After 23 years of business, the doors are closed for good. Lots of people came in to say goodbye and express their sadness at the store’s leaving. Lots of them admitted that they typically shopped at the big box stores. One customer actually said “I always shop at (insert name of big box store here), but I figured everyone else would shop here because the quality and prices are so much better.” I didn’t know how to respond to that.
I also didn’t know what to say to the customers who used to come in and spend forty-five minutes or more asking questions and getting detailed information about an animal’s requirements only to drive down the street to big box store to purchase the supplies; the big box store whose poorly trained employees don’t always know the proper care of the animals they were selling.
“I always come here for my crickets, though.” they said loyally.
Cricket purchases don’t keep the lights on, friends. If we want to have small business in our community, we need to shop there. If we expect to be able to call on someone knowledgeable to help us when we have a problem, we need to support them financially. Sometimes it means driving a little bit out of our way, sometimes it means having to pay a little more. Is it worth all of that to have a specialty store available to us? I think so.
So thanks for everything, Mike. And I’m still waiting on that trip to Hawaii.