Westwood Pet Center in Bethesda is closing next week after serving furry, feathered and scaly companions for 42 years.
Owner Dave Griffin, 63, said the shop is closing on June 30 due to a combination of factors: the COVID-19 pandemic reducing store traffic, the redevelopment of Westwood Shopping Center, and being ready for retirement.
Griffin (who is not related to this reporter) described the past year as the “perfect storm of things that came together,” forcing him to make a tough decision.
“When you come to an end of something that’s been so significant all my adult life … there’s a little apprehension. But I think for the most part, I’m excited,” said Griffin, who plans to travel to Iceland and Ireland this summer as a retiree.
The independent pet shop has been a destination for residents of Westbard and the surrounding Bethesda area for four decades. Loyal patrons are sad to see the store go.
“If you’ve been here on the weekend, there were, like, six people standing around saying, ‘Oh, it’s awful. We’re so sad.’ It really is,” said Marsha Barnes, who has shopped there for more than 20 years. “One, you like to support small business owners. Two, they are quality products, they’re very helpful. So, it’s really sad because, I mean, you can find things elsewhere, but this seems to be a better, more convenient place.”
Lisa Hotchkiss, who has shopped at the pet center for 14 years, said, “My little dog Sandy loves coming. I mean, like, she goes nuts when she walks in the door. And that is the sign of a good pet store.”
When Griffin bought the store in October 1979, the pet center sold fish, birds, reptiles and small animals, like chinchillas and guinea pigs. Now, it sells only pet supplies and accessories for animals of all walks of life.
Jean Dumesnil, a sales associate who has worked at the pet center for 20 years, said she has seen a customer walk in with a bearded dragon clutching their shirt and has fitted a harness on a potbelly pig.
The small brick-and-mortar storefront has not changed much in 42 years, according to Griffin. Even the original ceiling from when the shopping center was built in 1958 is intact.
The most structural change the store has seen is updates on the lighting and new flooring. The shelves and aisles have shifted, too, Griffin said.
One addition was introduced in 2017 — a wooden perch on top of the pet snack aisle for Zeus, the resident African grey parrot. Zeus, an iconic figure at the store, has lived there for about 25 years.
“A lot of people come in and say that they remember coming in and seeing Zeus as a kid. And then, now that they’re older, they bring their kids in and see Zeus. So, Zeus is a multigenerational staple for a lot of families,” said Spencer Griffin, 23, a son of the owner and current manager of the store.
Zeus was first thought to be a male, which is why the name comes from the most powerful ancient Greek god. But, Dave Griffin later discovered that Zeus is in fact female. That lesson happened after Zeus spontaneously laid an egg for the first time.
Zeus spends most of her days sitting on her perch at the center of the store whistling and chirping “hello” and “goodbye” to customers.
When the store closes, Zeus will live with Griffin’s eldest son, Andrew, in New Haven, Conn.
“Him and his wife love, love birds, and that’s going to be — they’re gonna take great care of [her] and Zeus is gonna go to a great home up there,” Spencer Griffin said.
Impact of COVID-19
The store has stood through many tough economic times, Griffin said, but none more challenging than the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pet stores were deemed “essential” and allowed to continue operating during the pandemic, but under public health and safety guidelines and social distancing measures. For the 750-square-foot pet store, the guidelines made it so only one or two customers could shop at a time.
This resulted in the pet center building a website where customers could shop for products online for curbside pick-up. The website was a success for the business, but it has shut down as the store prepared to close.
“We had to adapt quickly,” said Spencer Griffin, who graduated college at the beginning of the pandemic, then was managing the store.
The shop’s shelves that are a bit emptier than usual, due to selling off inventory.
The holidays and Christmas shopping were especially difficult for the store, Dumesnil and Griffin said.
At times, the store was short-staffed. An employee might have to work alone and handle both in-person and online orders.
“We had to just keep the door locked, because we couldn’t control, you know, if one person walks in, and then two more people walk in. So that was tough,” Dumesnil said.
Luckily, none of the five employees at the store fell ill or tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the past year. None was laid off either.
Redevelopment of Westwood Shopping Center
The redevelopment of the shopping center factored into the pet center closing at the end of this month.
The redevelopment plans have been in the works for years. They include the addition of town homes and apartments, a new Giant grocery store, ground-floor retail, a parking garage, and green space.
In December, plans for a senior assisted living facility were approved in the Westbard neighborhood.
Residents of the surrounding Westbard neighborhood have voiced concerns about the project, citing issues like traffic flow and compliance with environmental regulations and even formed a Save Westbard group.
Dave Griffin said the “upcoming multi-year and multi-phase reconstruction” of the shopping center, the expected noise disruption, and the change in traffic flow convinced him not to take the two-year lease renewal the developer, Regency Centers Corp., offered.
Griffin said other merchants he has talked to in the shopping center have little information on when the construction will start. “There’s just been rumors,” he said.
Construction in the area has not yet begun.
The website Regency Centers created for the redevelopment project still says demolition was set to start in the summer of 2020, with a groundbreaking anticipated in the fall of 2020.
Eric Davidson, a spokesperson for Regency Centers, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat: “We are currently taking steps to organize and eventually present the roadmap for our redevelopment. This includes time tables, merchant news, and other information that we feel is important to share with our neighbors and operators. People can expect to see some major updates in the coming months as things progress.”
When asked about the redevelopment project, pet center customer Chris Dixon said, “I mean, sure, a facelift would be great. I can admit that.” But, she is still sad to see an independent business leaving.
What stuck out the most to Dave Griffin as the best part of his job is the lasting relationships he made with customers and employees.
“We all get to a certain point in life when we want to feel like we’ve had an impact,” he said. “And, I was here last week, on the day after the email [announcing the closure] went out, and to listen to what people have had to say, and then to hear from Spencer and Jean, what people have had to say, you know, it makes me happy to know that in some small way, this place has had an impact. And that’s, for me, that’s a great feeling.”