Pet store Abrams & Weakley preserves legacy of engagement
What made people loyal to Judy Weakley certainly wasn't her sunny demeanor.
“She could be pretty abrasive,” said Kirsten Zellner, owner of the Abrams & Weakley pet supply store in Susquehanna Township. Zellner inherited the store from Weakley after the latter passed away in 2009.
According to Zellner, Weakley was widely known among customers at the bodega-style shop for sharply correcting any customer seen treating their pets with anything less than perfect care.
“If someone came in with a choker collar on their dog, she’d slap the counter and say ‘Son of a … ! That’s not how you do that!’” said Zellner.
What kept customers returning to the store — and what preserves the store’s destination status almost nine years after her death — was Weakley’s reputation as sage counsel in the confusing and expensive world of pet care.
“There were people who took it personally and maybe never came back. Who knows?” said Zellner. “But she was outspoken and smart and people really respected that.”
Weakley founded the store in 1985 with her romantic partner Beth Abrams. Though the two eventually split in the 1990s, Weakley operated the store as independently as she could, often receiving help from customers thankful for her advice.
One such customer was Becky Schuchert, former owner of neon-sign store Sparky’s Neonworks, who would help out at Abrams & Weakley before starting as an employee. According to Schuchert, the same aspects of Weakley’s personality that repelled some people drew far more toward the store.
“With a strong personality, you’re going to have people who appreciate that and people who don’t appreciate that,” said Schuchert.
Weakley quickly built a loyal following in Central Pennsylvania, often directing customers from as far away as Hanover and Lancaster toward home remedies or less-expensive products that cost less than what a vet might recommend.
“People would call Judy before they’d call the vet if their dog had diarrhea or got sprayed by a skunk or anything. It was like having a hotline. People came from all over the place and they still do,” said Zellner.
Though not a blood relative, Zellner inherited the Abrams & Weakley store after Weakley lost a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Zellner had begun shopping at the store in 2004 while working as a behavioral specialist at Kutztown University.
Taken by Weakley’s attitude and desire to help people and animals, she began assisting Weakley with stocking and shipping before being hired as an employee in 2005.
“As a very long-time pet owner, I knew to practice what she was preaching. I’ve had dogs and cats and a horse and a bunch of small animals and this just seemed like a really great place to be,” said Zellner.
Their friendship quickly grew into a student-mentor relationship, with Zellner learning from Weakley’s example.
“She was like a mom to me,” said Zellner.
Zellner was written in to Weakley’s will shortly before Weakley was diagnosed with ALS. The passage of ownership means Abrams & Weakley has been a woman-owned and LGBT-owned business for all of its 33 years.
Zellner, an Allentown native and graduate of Kutztown University, maintains the shop as Weakley ran it, doling out free advice and urging people toward natural foods and home remedies for minor ailments.
Shops like Abrams & Weakley, which bills itself as “a general store for animals,” are increasingly rare among pet supplies stores. According to a 2016 study by Pet Business Magazine, the 10 largest pet specialty chains — such as PetSmart, Petco and Pet Valu — were responsible for 80 percent of new store openings.
Like all retailers, pet supply stores also have to be wary of e-commerce sites offering home delivery and a wide selection. In May 2017, PetSmart bought Chewy.com, a pet supply ordering service. Chewy operates 10 warehouses nationwide, including one in Silver Spring Township.
While Chewy and its peers can offer convenience, said Zellner, Abrams & Weakley achieves staying power through community engagement. The store works with charities to find homes for abandoned pets and keeps customers informed about safety recalls, a relatively common occurrence with mass-produced pet food.
“Right now, what keeps us afloat is the mentality of the people we serve,” said Zellner. “They know they’re doing something good for their community by keeping money in their community.”