Pet project

KAHULUI – Two girls huddle over a pair of cockatiels Saturday afternoon, eager but unsure about touching the small birds at The Pet Shop in Maui Mall.

“Do you want to hold them?” store owner John Guard asks.

The girls nod, and Guard gently retrieves the birds and places one on a finger of each girl, bringing a bright smile to their faces.

This year, Guard and his wife, Susan, celebrate 40 years of sharing experiences such as these with Maui residents and visitors. The store, which sells everything from kitty litter to African spur-thighed tortoises, opened in 1973 as one of the original tenants at the mall, including Longs, Kahului Florist and Tasaka Guri Guri.

“We’re seeing people coming in today that were kids when they used to come – and now they’re grandparents,” Guard said.

The idea for the pet store originally came to Guard, a Honolulu native, when he was in college and his roommate suggested selling tropical fish, which was “reported to be the next billion-dollar venture.”

“It was just jabber at the time,” he said.

Before he could pursue the business, however, Guard’s father suffered a massive stroke and he was asked to manage his father’s business – selling used heavy equipment and pipes. About a month later, his father decided to close the business.

“That’s when I said, ‘Gee, dad, we have this idea about starting a tropical fish store.’ He thought we were nuts,” Guard said. “But the shopping malls were just beginning and they were clamoring for a pet store.”

Already married and with a child, the 22-year-old dropped out of school and bought 715 square feet of space for 35 cents apiece at Maui Mall.

“That’s all I could afford,” Guard said. “We never had a goal except to survive.”

After the first few years, the store was bleeding money and the couple’s accountant suggested that they plan for bankruptcy. The Guards reviewed their sales, though, and found that they needed to scrap their original plan of highlighting tropical fish.

“I was young and stupid. I had grown up with animals all my life, but that didn’t give me any expertise,” Guard said. “Our cash register used to be just four buttons: birds, dogs, cats, fish. So we didn’t pay too much attention to it until we almost went out of business and realized nobody was buying any fish and just wanted dog things.”

Since its rocky start, the store has blossomed and undergone five renovations and expanded to more than 5,300 square feet. The store also has claimed several awards, including as the Ho’okela Award for Maui Retailer of the Year (2007) and a certificate of outstanding achievement awarded by Mayor Alan Arakawa last year.

Up until seven or eight years ago, the Kahului store sold puppies and kittens, which were displayed in its front windows. Guard said that in the days before strict spay and neuter laws, they would sell kittens for 96 cents each because of their abundance.

“Kittens are kind of seasonal, but some days we’d literally turn down hundreds,” he said of people looking to sell or give them away to the store. “I remember one day coming to the store and finding a box full of kittens that somebody had just left.”

Guard said that the staff does not miss cleaning up after felines and canines but still needs to clean about a dozen bird cages at the store. Those numbers have fallen too, though, due to state and federal laws governing imported animals.

Imported birds need to be quarantined for 30 days due to diseases such as avian flu and malaria, a requirement that has driven up prices. The store has only about a dozen birds and a handful of varieties – a majority of them are from local breeders.

“For breeders on Oahu, if they don’t have to take those steps then why bother,” he said of the importing laws.

Despite the decrease in animals for sale, the store still sells dog food and other pet-related goods. The aquarium, which used to be its weaker department, has resurged, said Guard, and holds thousands of fish that are rotated into the store monthly.

His passion for fish has not died either.

“This is the black ghost knife fish,” he said pointing at a dark, serpentlike fish. “These guys are blind, so they use sonar to get around. You have to be careful with what fish you put in there because they go hunting at night when most fish are asleep.

“They’re a pretty cool fish.”

Many of his workers share his passion for pets, including Karen Freudenberg, who has three birds, two puppies, three aquariums and a water garden.

“I don’t even remember my first day here; I just know I was kind of on my own a lot,” Freudenberg said.

The 37-year veteran joined the staff as a junior in high school and is now in charge of hiring new workers, scheduling and ordering animals. She said that she “never would have projected” that she still would be with the store today.

“I’ve actually hired some of my classmates’ children – actually, she’s one of them,” she said, pointing at co-worker Tess Shishido.

Shishido has been working at the store for eight years and said that she grew up going to the store as a child.

“I think, as a kid, everybody comes to The Pet Shop and wants to work here,” she said. “I feel like if you work here and you don’t have pets you’ll end up with one.”

Freudenberg said that cleaning up after puppies and kittens was not one of the highlights of the job, but she said working at the store “just felt right.”

“We see a lot of kids and, if it’s not too busy, we’ll pick (birds) up and let them hold them,” she said. “Some of them don’t have pets at home, so we try to share the experience with them.”

On Saturday, one of those children was Wailuku resident Christa Takitani, 8, who was playing with the two cockatiels alongside her father, Christopher.

“We come here all the time, if nothing else just to bug John (Guard),” Christopher Takitani said. “My daughter grew up in this pet shop, always wanting to see some animal. We have three parrots we bought from John.”

Now 62 years old, Guard and his wife still greet customers at the door.

Guard also works five days a week; when asked if he is getting tired, he said: “After 40 years I think anyone gets tired, but we have a great crew here.”

“The key people have all been here at least 15 years . . . and I’ve been very fortunate to not have too much turnover,” he said. “These are all people that love animals and seem to love their jobs, too.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at