Nudelman points to the rear space that now makes up fully half his store. Not long ago, it was devoted entirely to birds.
To the right are three modest rows of reptile tanks; formerly, the lizards and snakes he stocked inhabited their own large room. Likewise for the rabbits, now relegated to a single cage.
"These used to be in a beautiful room that was custom done," Nudelman says, wistfully. "This was the biggest full-line pet store in New York City."
Nudelman, 51, the son of two florists who owned a shop in Bay Ridge, loved dogs from childhood and always wanted his own pet store. In his 20s, after apprenticing with a trainer, he opened his first store, on Third Avenue, in 1984. And in this tightly knit neighborhood, cradled in a swath of residential streets along Brooklyn's southwest shoreline, business boomed. Soon he'd outgrown the Third Avenue space and moved to a larger storefront on 92nd Street. In 1990, he seized an opportunity to move his puppies, kittens, reptiles, tropical fish and rodents into an existing pet shop on nearby 86th Street, a bustling, wide-berthed commercial strip that has been a prime shopping location for something like 100 years.
"It was a giant step. Moving here, we just exploded," Nudelman says. "86th Street was legendary for the amount of business you would get. It was prestigious. If you were on 86th Street, it was kind of like being in Manhattan. It was like 'You've made it.' "
He was nervous at the time, but he move paid off. Two years later, Nudelman doubled his floor space, expanding into an adjacent storefront. Times were flush. He drove a Porsche. His store was featured on CNBC. The customers kept on coming.
"It was fabulous," he recalls, standing behind the computer at one end of his store's front counter, a standing-room-only spot that has become his de facto office in these leaner times. "This was a neighborhood 20 years ago. It was the heyday here. The people who shopped, you knew everyone." He shakes his head ruefully. "That's over."
A quarter-century after he launched his business, Nudelman faces a bleaker landscape. One by one, his colleagues, the intrepid fellow shopkeepers who greeted one another as they swept the sidewalk outside their stores each morning, closed up and moved on, driven out of business by a changing neighborhood, a changing world and rents that rose into the stratosphere.
For decades, 86th Street functioned as a sort of meeting place for the neighborhood, with its grocery stores and pharmacies, boutiques and bakeries—shops that were both labors of love for the local families that ran them and anchors for the customers who frequented them. Now chain stores have colonized the street. Third and Fifth avenues in Bay Ridge remain vibrant with small businesses, but 86th Street has ceased to be a community gathering spot and has evolved into a kind of mini-mall, a place where people from elsewhere shop at the Gap, Cohen's Fashion Optical and Claire's Accessories rather than where locals do their errands at independent stores.
To many longtime residents of this community, the loss of dozens of independent stores over the past 10 to 15 years has torn a hole in the neighborhood's fabric, though remnants of it can still be found among the holdouts: the ice cream parlor and restaurant where senior citizens gather for lunch, communing with friends in what, for many, might be their only socializing for the day. The jewelry store where the proprietors have sold engagement and anniversary gifts to four generations of a single family. The hair salon to which loyal clients will trudge in any weather to be seen by the same stylist they've known for 40 years.
The national chains and the closed storefronts are not just a depressing view from Nudelman's window. They are also a chilly reminder of his own dire straits, a reinforcement of the sinking realization that if current trends continue, his business might soon meet a similar fate.
This year, he estimates, his revenues were off by a staggering seven figures from what they were just a few years ago. He made the wrenching decision to downsize in 2008. He asked his two landlords for a rent break, and when one declined, he closed down that half of his shop and cut back to a single storefront.
"We just didn't need all that space," he says. He shrugs. "Sometimes you have to take one step back to go three steps forward."
Nudelman, who now lives in Staten Island, says he used to have some freedom as the owner to come and go. Not anymore, as plummeting business has led to a shrinking staff.
"After 26 years, you don't want to have to work seven days a week," he says. "Now I'm back here almost seven days a week."
He's thought long and hard about the reasons, trying to make sense of the decline: Kids who prefer their Wii and PlayStation to fish and birds. New demographics in the neighborhood, including an influx of immigrants who tend not to have the time, money or inclination for cats and dogs. A 30-month street reconstruction project that at times left his shop all but barricaded, reachable only by navigating metal grates and wooden planks. A new parking lot in the nearby Century 21 that allows shoppers to drive in and out without passing, or even noticing, the other businesses. A thicket of city regulations. An army of traffic enforcement agents who ticket customers when, because they're about to carry out a 50-pound bag of dog food, they hastily double park. The rents. The economy. The Internet. National pet store chains that can undercut him with lower prices.
In the past few years, it has all crested into a tidal wave of forces that have turned the mom-and-pop business into one of New York City's endangered species, fighting the odds on a strip where they're all but extinct.
Neither the city nor the state tracks the number of small-business closures or openings, but store owners and their advocates, economists and real estate experts agree that recent years have been extraordinarily difficult for shopkeeping—a risky proposition even in the best of times.
"For small businesses, the margin of error—and the cushion—is less. There are a lot of small businesses that are going from hand to mouth, and in some cases they're new entrepreneurs living out their dream of opening up a shop. In some cases, they may have taken a second mortgage out, so the struggle is greater for them," says Robert Walsh, commissioner of the city's Department of Small Business Services. "If you open a restaurant or a café and put a good deal of money into the capital, ovens, furniture, construction, and you're looking to get that back over time, it's like a mortgage. And for some, it's a scary scenario when you build it and they don't come."