By Neal Pollack
On any given day at Abby's Let's Pet, a storefront not much larger than your living room, you can find dozens of puppies in cages doing the things that puppies do--yapping, urinating, chewing on rawhide bones, shredding news-papers, and looking cute and mournful.
Mary Sopiarz, the store's stocky, short-haired, and incredibly patient co-owner, has resigned herself to a life full of barking. "It doesn't make me nervous," she says. "Very little makes me nervous. I scream a lot, but you have to scream over this. I had a hearing test and I was shocked that I passed. After hearing all that barking. Sometimes in the morning when you're feeding them water you feel vibrations going through your head. Man, it really gets to ya after a while. It's like, feed them water quick so they shut up."
Mary's mother, Barbara Woods, has operated a German shepherd kennel in Palos Hills since 1952. Mary's childhood was spent feeding her mother's shepherds, running them, shepherding them to dog shows. When it came time to leave home, Mary says, it was dogs or nothing. "I don't know what else to do," she says. "It's my life--since I was a little kid. It's like, why does John Lennon's kid sing? 'Cause his old man did, and that's all the kid probably heard around the house all the time, right? So all we knew was dogs. We grew up in a kennel. Dogs, dogs, dogs, my whole life. Dogs, dogs, dogs."
When Mary first opened Abby's Let's Pet 18 years ago, it was a grooming and pet-supplies shop at Halsted and Cornelia. Since then Abby's Let's Pet has been located at Belmont and Racine, Lincoln and Irving, and its current location near the corner of Ashland and Roscoe, indicated by a big clapboard out front that reads PUPPIES.
"It's not really Abby's, it's just Let's Pet," explains Mary, who says she added "Abby's" because it places the store first in the Yellow Pages. "Abby's is short for Aberdeen. It's a kind of dog. Scottish terrier. Let's Pet, in case it didn't work as a pet shop, we'd turn it into a massage parlor. Sound good? Eighteen years ago, it sounded good. Let's Pet. I don't know why."
It's a freezing cold Saturday in December, but Abby's Let's Pet is rowdy with activity. Mary's in the back, feeding a white cockatiel that bobs its head around nervously. "That's my pet," she says. "I was cleaning out the office. He doesn't like sprays."
Although Mary's definitely in charge, at the moment the store is being run by her older sister, Sue, who sits behind the counter chain-smoking and generally having a jolly time. "Mary's got brains," Sue chuckles. "I'm more the fun-loving type."
People wander around the store. Some are customers, some are employees, some are both, and some are neither. The line's blurry at Abby's Let's Pet. "It's like family here," says Sue. "You treat the customers like family. You treat 'em like regular people. We don't give a heavy sell. Nobody pushes a puppy on you if you don't want it. If they want to see it, we'll show it to 'em. If they don't, we just leave 'em alone. It's like buying a car. You wanna look at the car. You don't want somebody telling you, 'Here's the paperwork, let's sign and go.' It's the same thing. You just have to let people decide what they want. If it's meant to be, then the puppy goes. If it's not, then it wasn't meant to be."
"You need your fix, your puppy fix," Mary says. "People come off the bus every day--the same people. And they come and they hold the puppies. And they say, 'Oh, we just came to see 'em, see if this one's still here or that one.'"
"They have a stressful day at work and they come in here," Sue says.
Salesmen from the Mazda lot next door are frequent visitors. Mary says, "When they get a bad customer, they run down here to chill out."
In general, Mary says, dogs are good for people. "I was talking to this little old lady in the alley, and I gave her a little toy fox terrier dog. Sat here for like eight months, nobody wanted him. She used to walk around the alley really slow. I said to her, 'You want a nice little dog?' She said, 'I can't afford a dog.' I said, 'This dog has all the shots, it's a nice little terrier. I'll give her to you.' And now I see her three or four times a day. She walks that little dog everywhere. She walks faster, she walks better, she looks better. A cat would never get her out of the house. She'd be sitting home petting it. Big whoopee! Then she'd get asthma from the cat."
Abby's Let's Pet has several house dogs of its own, seven in fact, including Lucky Dog, a shih tzu that Mary saved from the Hammond, Indiana, dog pound; Magic Dog, a big white Lab-shepherd she rescued after he was struck by a car on Lake Shore Drive; and a 140-pound rottweiler who, until recently, was named Bingo and is now named Hannibal. There's also Harley, Sue's German shepherd named in honor of Mary's other great passion--her Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
"She got her Harley the same time I got mine," Sue says.
"It's a fever--it's a feeling," Mary says. "Unless you ride on one you'll never know it. When I bought it I couldn't get it out of the truck. It weighed 800 pounds. I finally went to the Shell station and they pulled it down on the lift. I slept on it the first night. I put my blanket on it and I slept on it. Once you actually start it and you ride it--if I took you just down the alley or down Ravenswood--once you have this feeling, you know, it's a feeling you'll never have again. Freedom and power. It's like being able to fly--it's like the same feeling."
That said, Mary never mixes dogs and motorcycles. "One time I thought about it. I had to pick up one shih tzu. I really thought about getting on the Harley and putting it in my coat. But I decided that the vibrations would freak him out. He'd come back and be on the ceiling."
With all the bustle in Abby's Let's Pet it's easy to forget that Mary, who lives next door, is running a business. But the dogs sell rapidly, fetching anywhere from $50 for a mutt to $200 for a beagle to $500 and up for a purebred chow or an equally tony canine. There are purebreds: Pomeranians, rottweilers, Boston terriers, Australian cattle dogs, Labrador retrievers, and dalmatians. And mixes: toy collie and terrier, collie-Labs, cockapoos, Shihapoos, schnauzer-Poms. One sign advertises a dog that's "3/4 Akita, 1/4 Shep." In a back room there's an open-air pen of German shepherds, gnashing their chops and scrambling over one another.
Mary has her hand in just about every aspect of the domestic-pet business. Her partner, Tara Aplin, is in charge of Abby's Let's Pet's citywide dog-walking and cat home-care services. A longtime Sopiarz family friend, Billy Rafferty, has a grooming salon set up in the back. Mary spends a lot of her time shuttling sick puppies back and forth to Kankakee, where her brother Richard runs the Richton Park Animal Hospital. The store also sells pet products like Choo-Hooves, Nylabone, Cosmic Kittyherbs, WeeWee Pads, and Tangle Free Pet Creme Rinse.
All this adds up to a lot of very specialized knowledge. Sue gives some specific instructions to a woman who has just purchased a German shepherd puppy.
"If you give him a bath tonight, do not take him outside until tomorrow," Sue shouts over the yapping din. "And use a hair dryer--make sure he's dry real well. He's six weeks old. He'll go everyplace with you. Try not to switch the dog food. Shepherds have very weak stomachs even though they're big dogs. Puppy food until he's two years old. And you keep him on vitamins until he's two years old. And no milk, just water. If you put this puppy in a cage, make sure you take the collar off, because what happens with this buckle is he gets caught in the wire. So do not tie him up if he's not leashed."
The puppy licks his new owner.
"Oh, your new mama," Sue says. "Oh, God, what a big baby. Wow. Shepherds.They do it all."
"I never get tired of them," Mary says. "I like the holidays so we can close and just be alone with the dogs."
"They're better than people," Sue says.
"They don't talk back," Mary says. "They agree with you no matter what. You can tell 'em any of your problems and they always agree."
Later, Sue flips through a copy of Dog Fancy magazine. She crinkles up her nose. "Oooof," she says. "It smells like dog in here."
"Well, whaddya expect!" shouts Mary, who's changing the dogs' water. "It's a friggin' dog store!"
Sue comes across a particularly nice specimen in the magazine.
"Hey, Mary, look at this one. Isn't he beautiful?"
"Sue, do we really need another dog?"
"Yeah, but this one's really beautiful."
"Sue, Sue, we don't need it," Mary says, waving her arms around. "Jesus, Sue, look at us. We don't need it. We're surrounded by dogs."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos /Lloyd DeGrane.