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An Eccentric Pet Shop's Owner Confronts the Flood's Big Question … – Seven Days

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August 09, 2023 News » Business
Published August 9, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Five parakeets currently reside in the small parlor of Cindra Conison\’s Montpelier home. They should be living at the Quirky Pet, Conison\’s State Street business, but the store is missing spans of flooring and drywall, and what remains is still specked with dried mud and dust.
To fit in the parlor, the birds\’ tall wooden aviary needed to be turned on its side, which has given them more space to fly. They share the room with a small photo of the Dalai Lama and a pair of winged beasts — Balinese kites that Conison pinned to her ceilings and walls. The parakeets chirp ceaselessly in their sunny new digs. \”Boy, they\’re chattery,\” Conison noticed. \”Chattery, chattery.\”
Their organic music carried into Conison\’s dining room, where she was spending another day creating spreadsheets, making calls, weighing packages and scribbling on legal pads alongside her dreadlocked sheepdog, Joshe. In recent months, Conison, 68, and her 71-year-old husband, Richard Sheir, spent evenings around their long kitchen table contemplating how they wanted to spend their golden years. Maybe they would travel. Maybe they could boost the Quirky Pet\’s revenue just enough so that Conison and Joshe, who run the shop themselves most days, could hire some help.
July\’s flood upended those musings and, in washing out the store, threatened to deny Conison every small business owner\’s last wish: the chance to convert years of hard work into a comfortable retirement that begins on her terms.
Sitting at their table last week, the couple said they have not entertained the thought of letting the Quirky Pet close for good. Conison has spent a dozen years cultivating her vision for a classic Vermont general store for pets. \”I\’m not done being down there,\” she explained. But Sheir, the self-described \”store husband,\” did acknowledge that restarting the business might not be \”the greatest idea in the world.\”
\”I never felt that,\” Conison insisted.
\”I did,\” her husband said.
In the flood\’s wake, a dilemma has sprouted for the Quirky Pet\’s owner and those of dozens of small businesses around the state. During a period of duress, each must also confront the complex, intensely personal question of how — or whether — to build back their former livelihood. The choice can pit emotional investment against financial resources, instinct against stamina, risk against stubbornness. Yet the futures of the state\’s flood-prone downtowns and villages will turn on their calculations, which, when so much remains uncertain, are really leaps of faith.
The Quirky Pet\’s owner revealed her decision in a detailed message that she posted in the shop window and circulated on social media late last month. Despite the damage caused by four feet of water, the couple\’s ages and an uncertain recovery timeline, the business would reopen, Conison wrote, in the \”exact same location.\”
\”It is an essential part of our town\’s identity,\” she wrote, describing the Quirky Pet as \”a very peculiar commercial anchor in the only state capital without a Walmart, Starbucks or McDonalds.\”
The pronouncement felt important at a moment when many in Montpelier are rattled by the scale of destruction, Conison said. \”It\’s hard to imagine all of these stores rebuilding and reopening,\” Jen Roberts, co-owner of Onion River Outdoors on Langdon Street, told Vermont Public while cleanup was getting under way.
The owners of Capitol Copy, the longtime print shop around the corner on Main Street, have already announced they will not. The same goes for Mister Z\’s pub and pizza shop in downtown Barre, which had been open for 35 years.
Conison received dozens of appreciative responses. \”Montpelier needs Quirky!\” one customer emailed to say. Others have stopped to hug Conison while she walks Joshe in Hubbard Park, telling her they\’re glad the Quirky Pet will return. Conison registers the feedback as validation of her quest to reopen. \”There is no risk,\” she said. \”People want me back.\”
The pet-supply shop, open since 2011, has always been an expression of Conison\’s whimsical mind. She created in its 700 square feet the cramped, creaky warmth of a country store. Beef tendons and duck heads poked from penny-candy jars and wire baskets on open shelving — an \”apothecary of animal parts,\” Conison likes to say, all of it sourced from U.S. manufacturers. Locals stopped by to shoot the breeze, and Conison\’s friends came to knit with her. The parakeets, not for sale, have enticed tourist passersby with their gentle chatter.
So have the dogs, of course. Joshe, who is 7, is the fourth Bergamasco sheepdog in the Quirky Pet pantheon. Their unforgettable, mop-like fur makes them natural mascots and ambassadors, especially to children, who sometimes braid their dreads and often pose for photos. The three now-deceased dogs appear on the 15,000 bumper stickers that Conison has given customers over the years, and they are the stars of a wistful exhibit in the front window that imagines them as Beatles-era pop stars, \”The Quirkies.\”
Joshe moves like Conison\’s shadow, and they do complement one another. The dog is quiet, inscrutable and effortlessly charismatic. Conison, an art school grad and former substance-abuse counselor, is ebullient in conversation but socially shy, with cropped hair and big, round glasses. Her husband, Sheir, has sunken blue eyes and speaks like an excited professor. The store, he said, embodies \”a mythic America that is no longer in your town or your city.\” Sheir sees his wife\’s shop as an iconic Vermont brand, not unlike Ben & Jerry\’s or Cold Hollow Cider Mill, albeit smaller.
The couple monitored the shop on July 10 until floodwaters were covering State Street and its sidewalk. The water was knee-deep when they trudged home. Later that week, Conison described the near-total damage during a televised interview with FOX\’s national weather channel. Visibly shaken, she kept one hand on Joshe, seated in a chair next to her, as she talked.
During the initial, volunteer-driven cleanup effort, Conison felt upbeat. She thought she could reopen in two weeks, after using the short closure to finish the little cosmetic projects at the shop that she\’d never gotten around to.
Then the adrenaline gave way to tedium and anxiety. Conison was poring over one of her product spreadsheets when the enormity of the work took hold.
\”I haven\’t cried this whole time — I still didn\’t — but that\’s, I think, when the overwhelming got to me,\” she said.
The Quirky Pet, like most small businesses, didn\’t have flood insurance because of the prohibitive cost and because its owners perceived the risk as remote. In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded only the store\’s basement.
Unlike homeowners and tenants, businesses aren\’t eligible for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Local community groups distributed $4,000 checks to more than 100 businesses, including the Quirky Pet, and Conison recently applied for a small \”emergency gap assistance\” grant through the state. But so far, the primary financial relief comes in the form of low-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Conison and Sheir have applied for an SBA disaster loan, which they said offers their only financial path to rebuilding the business. They chose not to crowdfund donations, preferring to steer community goodwill into online sales. But taking on debt at the moment they\’ve lost most of their business assets is not a decision to take lightly.
Sheir, a database analyst, worked through the financial scenarios, figuring out how they might repay a loan. He needed Conison to tally their losses to plug into his formulas. \”I\’m pressing her,\” he recalled, \”\’Give me numbers on—\’\”
\”—and that\’s when we started fighting,\” she interjected.
Though the shop serves discerning locals, it has always relied on the rhythms of seasonal tourism to turn a profit. The flood cut short the summer bump, and the extent to which it disrupts fall and winter could make or break their reboot. The Quirky Pet needs leaf peepers, whose purchases fund the inventory Conison buys ahead of winter holiday shopping. Holiday sales, in turn, sustain the business through the lean months that follow.
A reopening date, however, is not entirely within the couple\’s control. As the space gets rebuilt, it will need to be inspected by city staff who have many blocks of work ahead of them. How long will that take? Conison is wondering. Leaf season is just five or six weeks away.
That\’s a big reason Conison scoured the flooded shop for undamaged merchandise. Some of her animal parts were stored above the waterline in sealed bags, she explained. She\’s turned a room in her home into a makeshift warehouse as she begins to sell through her online shop.
Tally marks on a legal pad track the spike in online orders since the flood; Conison has counted purchases from customers in 26 states. She\’s already ordered fresh inventory to sell online.
The website, as eccentric as the physical shop, will provide a bridge until the Quirky Pet can reopen, she hopes.
If the web orders remain steady, they could also become a hedge against one of Conison and Sheir\’s other concerns: that downtown Montpelier may come back in a diminished way.
Small retailers tend to depend on the vibrancy of their wider commercial district. \”We don\’t know who\’s going to open and who\’s not,\” Sheir said, choosing his words carefully.
\”He\’s wondering about the viability of downtown Montpelier,\” Conison said. \”And I keep thinking, Well, New Orleans came back.\”
Just in case, the pair have another entrepreneurial card up their sleeve. Before the flood, they\’d been batting around an idea to begin wholesaling their popular catnip products. They\’d imagined the new venture as a way to reduce Conison\’s hours at the shop; now, it might be a matter of survival.
Producing the wholesale products will be straightforward. Conison already buys bulk catnip from the premier U.S. supplier and inserts it into small packages, alongside a surprise toy, such as a marble. Their stroke of genius, they hope, is to brand the product line as the Vermont Organic Catnip Dispensary, for which labels — with the punch line \”Use Responsibly\” — arrived in late July.
Next, they need to find retailers to stock the intoxicating catnip blends, buds and infused treats. Vermont gift shops are one natural target; they have others in mind.
As Conison and Sheir hatch their plan for a successful return, their Montpelier community is also dealing with existential questions about the way forward as floods become a more frequent reality. The first of three public forums on the future of the Capital City is planned for Thursday, August 10. And last week, Vermont Public\’s \”Vermont Edition\” hosted an hourlong show that posed the question: Should Montpelier be rebuilt on higher ground?
\”Oh, I hate that bullshit,\” Conison said, offering her answer. \”You can\’t rip down these old buildings.\”
Their corner of downtown was also inundated in 1927 and 1992. The latter was the result of an ice jam — a risk that officials have since learned how to manage, they understand. \”So, what we\’re talking about is \’27 and \’23. We\’re talking 100 years!\” Sheir reasoned. \”I\’ll roll those dice!\”
\”It\’s not like I don\’t believe that global warming exists,\” Conison said. \”I get it. But is this going to be a common occurrence? Who knows? It was three really bizarre circumstances.\”
Conison and Sheir ended their open letter about their decision to reopen by linking to a performance of \”Rainbow,\” an uplifting piano ballad made popular by country singer Kasey Musgraves. A few days later, someone delivered to their home several crayon drawings of rainbows, along with a note scrawled in a child\’s hand: \”We can see what Cindra sees!!\”
Down at the darkened, empty shop on a sweltering late July day, Sheir taped the drawings to the front window. The building\’s alarm system was still screeching, as it had been for weeks. Joshe lay silently in the sun. Conison, somewhat impatiently, gave Sheir directions about how to apply the tape so the rainbow drawings hung level.
Sheir didn\’t mind, he explained, as his wife stepped inside: \”She\’s living her dream.\”
The original print version of this article was headlined \”Dog Days in Montpelier | An eccentric pet shop\’s owner confronts the flood\’s big question: Should she rebuild?\”
Tags: Business, Animal Issue, Montpelier, Quirky Pet, Cindra Conison, pet shop, The Quirky Pet
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