Retailer Of The Year: Quirky, Cool and Loving It
This pet store reflects its hometown, which is America’s smallest state capital: different, unusual and very easy to like.
With a citizenry clocking in at around 8,000, Montpelier, Vt., is the smallest state capital in the U.S. Originally chartered in 1781, the community prides itself on its individualism.
So it’s no wonder that The Quirky Pet, also know as The Emporium of Way Cool Pet Stuff, is Pet Product News International’s Retailer of the Year 2014-2015 for Outstanding Independent Spirit. This place embodies a freethinking ethos.
Upon opening her venture in July 2011, owner Cindra Conison brought along a diverse background of experience and talents. A former substance abuse counselor and art therapist with a master’s degree in fine arts, the sculptural collage artist and avid knitter grew up in a retail family.
“My father owned an independent grocery store,” said Conison. “I always knew, in my heart of hearts, that I was going to end up in this business.”
A Work of Art
As an artist, Conison considers the eccentric ambience of The Quirky Pet to be her greatest work of sculptural collage. Customers love the store that serves as the local “dog talk” hangout for pet lovers.
“I am dog central,” she said. “I have regulars who come in here all the time, just to talk. In a way, I do therapy here, too, and I bet every independent retailer will tell you the same story.”
Regulars are referred to as “Quirks” and children as “Quirkettes,” but local folks often just describe themselves as “regs” or “FOAs”—Friends of Aria, Conison’s Bergamasco Italian sheepdog.
Aside from Quirks, regs and FOAs, Montpelier is a tourist town, including a cavalcade of fall “leaf peepers.” Besides these travelers, many part-time residents, escaping the hustle and bustle of big-city life, unwind in nearby second homes.
“I draw people from a wide area, and our goal is to provide an experience,” she said. “My dogs also are a big draw.”
Aria is not only a constant in the store, but also a town superstar.
“Aria thinks she’s royalty,” said Conison. “When I walk down the street with her, I hear children say, ‘There’s Aria!’”
Fellow Bergamascos Cuba and Anuzzo, or Nuzzie, also share greeting responsibilities. Not to be overlooked, a flock of eight canaries, The Quirky Birds, chirp and trill in a spacious aviary behind the register.
“The kids just adore them all,” she said. “They are very cool.”
Come In, Sit A Spell
As the epicenter of Montpelier dog culture, Conison relishes problem solving with her customers. That calling includes taking to the Internet in search of simple money-saving solutions that might rule out the purchase of an expensive product.
“I love to sell product, but I’m not going to sell something just to sell it,” she said. “If I can figure out a way to save money for my customers, then I do it. It’s my nature, and I learn a lot that way.”
A bright red, 2-foot-tall wooden “Quirky dog,” designed by Conison, hangs above the entrance, beckoning passersby inside. The sidewalk outside features a whimsical 3-D mural.
“That was my husband Richard Sheir’s idea,” she said. “It’s right in front of the store and features a friend’s daughter, looking up from the rubble with my Labrador, Dharma, who is no longer with us. People will stop to look at it.”
Inside, the 19th century barn wood and post-and-beam interior is punctuated by unique displays incorporating items found on the street. For instance, an old wooden snow shovel displays leashes and collars. A once-discarded bench nestles pet beds.
“It just turned more and more into finding discarded treasures and putting them to use,” she said. “People here are really big about putting things out on the curb for free.”
The Quirky Pet is patterned after an old-time general store, and two trees, each surrounded by apple baskets, add a homey, outdoorsy vibe.
“I might be the only pet retailer in the country with trees in my store,” said Conison. “The baskets hold what I call my ‘dead animal parts’; trachea, pigs ears, smoked pig snouts, etc. I do a remarkable business in them, too.”
Canine callers fall in love with the parts assortment, which ranges in price from 50 cents to $3. In addition, chicken feet and marrow bones, cut to order by a local butcher, join the delectable mix. Bones dangle above from tree limbs.
The second tree, bedecked with lights, is trimmed in T-shirts, rugs and smaller items.
A wood stove, once kicked to the curb, has been resurrected and adds to the nostalgic character of The Quirky Pet.
“It didn’t work any more, my neighbor threw it away, my husband and I wrestled it into the car, and an electrician friend hooked up an outlet for a light inside,” she said.
Made in the USA
The Quirky Pet features a strictly Made in the USA inventory, and Conison constantly is on the hunt for unique items.
“I am always trolling the Internet for product that is not only produced in the USA, but also uses USA-sourced materials only,” she said.
An avid feeder of raw foods for her own pets, Conison carries only raw offerings, sourced from a local company, Vermont Raw.
“My store is only 700 square feet, so I don’t have room to carry kibble, and residents are very much into supporting local business,” she added.
Toothsome goodies from a local bakery, The Preppie Puppy, whet the appetites of canine patrons visiting the pet-friendly store.
An eclectic inventory rounds out store offerings and includes treats, bowls, dog coats, reflective gear, boots, and cat and dog toys.
Customers that spend $50 or more take home a Wooferman. The ground-beef baked treats, from Jones Natural Chews Co., are created in the shape of a gingerbread man.
“When I learn that someone has adopted a dog, or it’s their pet’s birthday, I give them a little treat, too,” she said. “I like to reward my customers.”
When the weather warms in late spring, praying mantis eggs join the product mix.
“They eat the bad bugs in a garden,” said Conison.
In June, ladybugs arrive and are stocked for about six weeks.
“They take care of the aphids,” she said.
Cindra Conison and her three Bergamasco Italian sheepdogs.
Vermonters love to support their own; however, a big-box pet retailer is sited in a nearby town, in an area where chains are clustered.
“It hasn’t had an adverse effect on us, because I do The Quirky Pet better,” Conison said. “I have my own niche. This is a tourist town, people come to visit and walk the downtown.”
Moreover, Montpelier offers no fast food restaurants, chain coffeehouses or other enterprises of this nature.
Community is everything at The Quirky Pet and includes providing customers and visitors with referrals to local events, groomers, dog walkers or pet sitters. An ongoing collection earmarks donations for the humane society and area rescue groups. But The Quirky Pet isn’t averse to sending donations to worthwhile organizations outside of the area.
“I recently donated to the National Northeast Disabled Athletic Association,” she said. “They are playing power soccer.”
Additionally, gifts baskets and certificates are contributed to schools and other local organizations on a regular basis.
Conison partners with the downtown merchant association, Montpelier Alive, to address issues that might impact the district or to sponsor and promote community events.
For instance, shopkeepers participate in the annual Scavenger Hunt for Waldo and His Dog Woof, a national event, during the month of July.
“It’s really fun,” said Conison. “We hide a little standup form of Waldo and Woof in our stores, and the kids search until they find them.”
Children track their findings and, at the end of the month, return a completed sheet to be entered in a raffle for Waldo-related prizes.
“It’s sponsored by a major publisher, and the bookstore and library also are involved,” she said.
When Vermont temperatures plummet this winter, The Quirky Pet will serve as a collection point for Chase The Chill Vermont, a group dedicated to distributing scarves, mitten and hats to those in need. The warm woolies are placed in public areas with a sign stating, “Free to Take.”
“I first saw mittens and scarves hanging from trees around town and wanted to be involved,” she said.
|The Quirky Pet At A Glance|
Location: 5 State St., Montpelier, VT 05602
Owner: Cindra Conison
Years in Business: 4
Square feet: 740
Products and Services: Entirely USA-sourced and made inventory, boutique, cat and dog raw food, marrow bones, animal parts, bakery treats, gifts, collars and leashes, praying mantis and ladybugs (seasonal), local “dog talk” hangout
Conison and her Knit and Sit friends already are getting a jump-start on items to donate for the frigid season.
“We meet once a week to knit and visit,” said Conison.
In May, The Quirky Pet hosted a literary reading presented by local nurse and author Nina Gaby.
“The book is an anthology of women writers,” she said.
Additionally, The Quirky Pet led a campaign, in conjunction with the city, to raise funds for the purchase of a pet microchip scanner for the Montpelier Police Department in 2013. A more recent effort to disallow a near doubling of dog licensing fees intended to fund cleaning of poop stations around town finds Conison the “go-to” pet spokesperson.
“A lot of people won’t be able to afford the higher fees, and many don’t even use the parks or the poop stations,” said Conison. “Being the only independent pet store, I have been to the city council, and now the parks commission is asking for my input.”
For the future, Conison said she is content with one store.
“The future is just continuing to find really cool products,” she said. “I have an artistic eye, and it’s a lot of fun to choose patterns and colors.
“I really am the local pet hangout,” she said. “The Quirky Pet is a country store. That’s the bottom line.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Pet Product News