“It’s been a long run – it’s time to hang it up,” Fong says.
That’s Mark’s take on his decision to close his Critterland Pets, the shop he’s owned in Mill Valley since 1981, with the first few years at 365 Miller Ave. and the rest at 336 Miller adjacent to Tamalpais Paint & Color, which is set to expand into the Critterland space in early 2021. Fong and his brother Curtis are already contemplating the various specialty Bay Area pet shops they’ll reach out to unload specific products after their planned “retirement sale,” which begins after Thanksgiving.
Retiring and closing Critterland is a move that Fong says he’s been contemplating for quite a while, as the pet supply business has come to be dominated over the years by major chains, as well as customers prioritizing their convenience over the multi-faceted impact of supporting local businesses and generating sales tax revenue and community vitality in your hometown.
“I’m a dinosaur,” Fong says with a laugh.
After graduating from UC-Davis and a stint bagging groceries at Mill Valley Market, Fong joined his brothers in working at Wilton Pet Supplies at 76 Throckmorton Ave. in the late 1970s. In a fun twist decades later, Fong’s son Tommy has been working part-time at Mill Valley Market as well.
As much as macro-level industry changes and customer behavior has driven his decision to retire, Fong, who turns 67 in January, has also envied many of his longtime Mill Valley and Bay Area friends who have been enjoying the extra leisure time that comes retirement. He says he’s looking forward to visiting friends and joining pals on camping trips and outdoor excursions he’s had to miss in the past to run the shop.
“It’ll fun to be able to say ‘yes’ to these trips – and stay more than a night or two,” says Fong, whose shop has been an ardent supporter of Kiddo!, Mill Valley Little League, the tam High Foundation, Outdoor Art and myriad other local nonprofits over the years.
While Critterland has long been known for the breadth of its inventory – from vivariums to crickets and everything in between – in-depth customer service about the needs of your furry, feathered, or scaled friend has been its hallmark. They also earned a reputation for going beyond traditional customer service.
In nominating Critterland for its inclusion in our Profiles in Kindness in 2017-18 EMV Winter Guide, longtime customer Claire McAuliffe said the Fongs remember her (and all of her dogs over the years) every time she walks in the door, regardless of how long it’s been since she’s visited. “They cheerfully schlep the 40-pound bags out to my car,” she says. “Their actions are good business practice, but it’s their caring kindness that keeps me coming back.”
As word spread in recent days about Critterland’s closure, neighbors have expressed an outpouring of support on neighborhood platform Nextdoor.
“Critterland has been a treasure,” longtime Mill Valley resident Suz Lipman posted on Nextdoor. “When our last cat died after 18 years, we still stopped in for bird food, and hay for our compost, and just to say hi and see the new animals. The store was always a friendly place to visit, and I seem to recall the owners buying Girl Scout cookies when my daughter came around, too. Thanks for helping make Miller Ave. a main street. Best of luck to Mark, Curtis and the family!”
While there will be plenty of pet shops in the 94941 after Critterland’s closure, few could match its broad range of products, “Well, here’s a new market need for anyone who wants a job: live crickets, live cat food, homemade hamster food, hand-taming birdies and on and on,” Barbara Hockman posted on Nextdoor.
As for Fong, he’s not sure what exactly to expect over the next many weeks.
“I’ve never actually ever closed, so I have no idea how it’s going to go. We’ve already had a lot of longtime customers stopping by – it will be great to see so many customers and friends over the next six weeks or so.”