He pokes his finger into the water, which, thanks to artificial lighting, is deep blue like the sea, and attracts a cleaner shrimp who goes by the name of Jacques. The crustacean clings to Tom’s appendage, stripping it of parasites.
Next, Tom heads to the back of Tom’s Pet Supply and looks in on the canaries and parakeets and rodents and reptiles.
He scoops Artemis, the yellow and orange bearded dragon, into his hands, where the lizard lounges lazily until released back into his glass house.
Tom presents Hazelnut, the little latte-colored mouse, who climbs all over his hand at a frenetic pace, wispy whiskers quivering in excitement.
“Are you afraid of snakes?” he asks as he replaces Hazelnut with Fendi, a petite albino corn snake who coils his buttercream- and tangerine-spotted body around his arm like a tourniquet.
Little One, the 26-year-old red-footed tortoise who is Tom’s personal pet, isn’t quite as demonstrative.
“She’s shy,” he says. “It took a long time for her to get used to me.”
This is how Tom, who’s like a shiny new sports car roaring out of the showroom for the first time, starts every day.
God, how he loves it.
Tom, who is 22, opened Tom’s Pet Supply in the summer of 2019 on the former premises of Petland Discounts, a regional chain that closed after more than a half century in business.
Tom was born and raised around the corner from the Broadway store, which is in the strip mall that features the Bel-Aire Diner, and worked for Petland Discounts while he was studying at Fordham University.
Tom, who has cherub cheeks and wears his dark locks in a man bun, has a long history with pet stores.
He fell in love with animals when he was 3 and started begging for a puppy shortly thereafter.
“I was raised by my mom and grandmother, and although they love animals, they never let me have a puppy,” he says, adding that the death of a dog long before his time left them too heartbroken to get another.
He was, however, allowed to have fish, hermit crabs, turtles, hamsters and bearded dragons.
“I was really terrible,” he says. “I wanted to go in every pet store I saw, and I would throw a fit if I did not get to go in.”
By the time he was in high school, Tom had become what he calls a frequent pest at Petland Discounts.
“I used to come in and bother the manager for a job,” he says. “But you have to be 18 to work with animals, and I wasn’t.”
The closing of Petland Discounts came at an opportune time for Tom: He graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in May and started revamping the store in June.
There was much speculation in the neighborhood about the future of the space.
“I kept up with my customers, and one of them called me and said, ‘Did you hear about the new pet store? The owner’s name is Tom, and I think I know who he is. You should apply for a job there.’”
Tom demurred, saying he didn’t think it was necessary for him to do so.
“I told her the new owner was indeed Tom, but not the one she was thinking of,” he says. “When she asked me how I knew, I said, ‘It’s me,’ and she burst out laughing.”
Needless to say, pet owners were thrilled when Tom’s Pet Supply opened in July.
“I took all my savings, and I got some help from my family,” Tom says. “A lot of people don’t think there’s a place for a local pet store, and I don’t agree. People need to see the animals right there in front of them, and they need a place to go where people are knowledgeable to get answers you can’t get by Googling on the Internet.”
Tom and his 7-month-old rescue puppy Duck, whose bed is by the cash register, man the store seven days a week with the help of a full-time manager.
“I love being here,” Tom says. “People ask me whether I’m tired, but I’m not. It’s so exciting because every day, there’s something new.”
Tom says he has no grand plans – at least not yet – for adding a store or starting a chain.
“I’ve always wanted to work with animals, and I have a degree in sociology, which deals with the interactions of people, so this is the perfect combination,” he says.
He’s very sure about his future.
“What will I be doing five years from now? This,” he says, as he hangs the cages of parakeets near the front of the store. “What will I be doing 10 years from now? This.”
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling