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Maxwell Beretsky has owned the Pet Boutique at 490 Plandome Road for the past decade. Photo by Pat Grace

In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, dogs were often featured, whether stranded on rooftops--or worse; owners who loved their animals struggled to provide for them.

In some respects the current economic storm is no different. Just ask Maxwell Beretsky, who has owned Pet Boutique at 490 Plandome Road for the past decade.

He started noticing disturbing trends around November 2008. More customers were out of work and husbands began shopping for pet food when it had always been wives and nannies. Beretsky at first found it very strange after 10 years but said he enjoyed meeting the entire family.

Owning a pet has always been considered a luxury, not particularly a need, and becomes painfully difficult to afford when jobs disappear. As Maxwell said, "Owning a pet is a choice, not something you can write off on your taxes."

His own wife, employed in the medical field, was laid off about five months ago so she is helping in the store to save expenses. Her friends are suffering too, and she said it is difficult for everyone in retail.

Beretsky intends to hold on but says the rents are very high per square foot for this area. Most landlords are not willing to negotiate on the rents even though business is off, he claims, noting that in this area rents are approximately $40/square foot. "Drive down Plandome Road, 10 to 15 percent of the stores are empty. I know firsthand-I thought of switching to a different location in town and investigated rents and found landlords unwilling to work with me. That's one reason more and more storefronts are empty."

Beretsky lives in Port Washington and sees the same situation there, if not worse. He said landlords are sticking firmly to their price and one even said, "Eventually I'll get my price for the rental property even if I have to wait a year or two." According to Beretsky they won't rent for less than 10 years.

Comparing Manhasset to Manhattan, Beretsky said his friends there are paying roughly $10 more per square foot, depending on the location, and traffic in the city is much higher.

Residential properties tell a story too. According to Coach Real Estate agent Robert Bishop, there are 5,500 private residences in Manhasset and steadily, over a period between 10 and 20 years, roughly 180 houses were sold each year. It is a very tight market and Manhasset has always been in demand, he explained, but as the market has turned down fewer homes have sold. Currently, on multiple listing, there are 139 houses for sale in town and a problem Bishop cited was that not enough are on the lower end of the scale. Specifically: 30 are under $1 million; 31-91 are $1 million; 92-132 are $2 million; the remainder, from 133-139, are three at $3 million, two at $4 million, one at $5 million and one at $6.5 million.

From his perch behind the counter at his shop, Beretsky has noticed, "For some, living here isn't a fairy tale anymore, this used to be a gold coast town. Now it's struggling." What he hears from most of his customers is how they are conserving. They're making better choices.

Beretsky, also, is conserving. The Pet Boutique used to stay open until 6 p.m. but it has gotten so quiet he now closes at 5.p.m. Traffic in the store has decreased 10 percent just in the last four months, he said, however, while the Manhasset Press was on the premises there were at least five interruptions as customers wandered in. And pet stores, apparently, are not a place to browse. Everyone bought something.

This reporter did browse, however, happy the storeowner was making a sale. Did you know Paul Newman products are found on pet store shelves? There it was, Newman's Own Dog Treats in both cheese and peanut butter flavors. Additionally, they include "some organic ingredients." Mr. Beretsky said it is very good quality dog food and treats--and very expensive. It has no by products and no bad preservatives such as sugar, salt, corn, wheat or beet pulp, which is a good filler but difficult for dogs to digest.

Beretsky has seen price increases in dog food of 20-40 percent, while at the same time packages have shrunk, what used to be a 20-pound bag has shrunk to 15 pounds. These prices go up every month in pet food/supplies, he said, because distributors are not making their profit margins in the bad economy. Plus, he exclaimed, they are slapping on a "handling charge" and "delivery charge" even passing on a "fuel charge" - adding that it was never like that before.

Beretsky explained his distributors don't deal with low-end brands, but do provide samples and he has been, to the degree he is able, helping strapped customers over a rough patch with those samples.

Maxwell is working with seven families who cannot afford their pets anymore, can no longer afford food or grooming, may need to put them up for adoption. Depending on the breed, grooming can run $25 to $150. Maxwell says he is working with them, that each case is different. We all need to weather this storm, he believes, and he is trying to help his customers through it.

Other customers are simply stretching time between grooming appointments. Not unlike their masters, according to Bernard Kehl, co-owner Paul Anthony Haircutters, 1510 Northern Boulevard, who observes many of his customers stretch coloring their hair or getting a haircut for an additional week or more to save money. "I'm hoping the downturn isn't for a longer period of time and as the economy improves clients will return to their three to four week routine." Kathleen Barsky, Paul Anthony colorist, noticed customers are rethinking everything, even coffee. "They'll make it at home now before they'll buy it. Clients used to come here with big containers of store bought coffee-now they arrive with their own mugs."

Lately some customers have entered Pet Boutique with animals in tow ridiculously groomed, the customers having tried to save money but, ultimately, were unskilled in the use of scissors and shavers on uncooperative pets. Maxwell said his groomer, Tommy Bedid, is extremely creative and can look at a dog and envision the style it should be. Beretsky called it his gift. "We howl," he exclaimed, "at the condition of some of these dogs, but I might try the same thing in their situation."

Beretsky knows his customers don't want to go to supermarkets and purchase low end foods, most, he claimed, made in China from products found in China. Only two years ago, he said, there was a major pet food recall from foods manufactured in China. Local supermarkets sell a 15-pound bag for $25-$35, he continued, of good quality dry dog food from America or Canada. The best food, he noted, is American. Beware, Maxwell warned, of food containing Chinese ingredients but claiming to be "packaged" in the U.S.A.

He does not charge for delivery, but is getting 90 percent fewer calls, he revealed, "because people no longer want to tip the delivery man."

Beretsky said he had to lower his prices to compete with larger discount chains and doesn't mind making less of a profit if he can help people in need, stating, "Business has been very good for us for about 10 years and customer loyalty is the most important part of my business."

When another customer entered the shop that customer grabbed a bag of dog food and swung it onto the counter. Beretsky, who holds a degree in pet nutrition, informed him, "That brand has more grain." Sheepishly the man asked, "Is that good or bad?" Told if the dog is active it is fine, but, if not, protein is easier to burn. "That's what I need," the customer said happily, "she sleeps all day."

Some products stocked in the pet shop include food, gifts and supplies for cats, dogs, rabbits, fish, and guinea pigs. "I carry specialty items-leather collars and leashes and pet steps for senior dogs that provide a leg up to the owner's bed. None of these items are selling as well."

Each year Maxwell Beretsky gives thousands to animal shelters. They have told him they are not getting the contributions they used to get. He gave last year and will again this year because it is a charity close to his heart, but said he will be unable to give to as many local charities. "Nothing," he said, shaking his head, "is a simple $50 request anymore, it's closer to $500."

Pastor Jerry O'Sullivan of the Shelter Rock Church, with branches in Manhasset and Syosset, explained their church maintains a Benevolent Fund for members of their own congregation who are in need. Here on Long Island, Pastor O'Sullivan said, community is localized, churches being a good example. These layers of community assume greater importance in bad times and, he said, people are coming to realize this.

In the past, at Christmas, Pastor O'Sullivan said they struggled to find families to help; no one was willing to admit need. That has changed. Pride no longer prohibits families from acknowledging their situation, Sullivan said, for when you are out of work for several months struggling to buy food and pay the bills you appreciate a helping hand.

Members of the congregation fall at both ends of the spectrum, he said, and those in the position to help, when asked, have given, even sacrificially, to others in need in their congregation.

The pastor said scripture asks each of us to help one another. Help comes in many guises, be it dog food samples, or the Benevolent Fund at the Shelter Rock Church.


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