OLD TOWN — The owners of Chicago's oldest pet shop tried to do what they thought was right this year, but Sunday night, Collar & Leash closed its doors for good.
For 57 years the family-owned Collar & Leash sold dogs and cats and birds and guinea pigs to families strolling down Wells Street, but just five months ago, under pressure from animal rights groups, the owners of the shop made a "historic" decision.
Sonja Raymond and her husband, Dan, agreed to stop selling dogs and cats, claiming it had become impossible to find legitimate dealers due to the prevalence of puppy mills.
That decision killed their business, but neither Sonja nor Dan thinks they made the wrong choice.
"I felt bad on one hand that we weren't making money, but on the other hand I felt kind of relieved to know I wasn't buying from puppy mills," Sonja Raymond said.
Collar & Leash, 1435 N. Wells St., made its official transition from dog and cat sales on April 1, and celebrated being the first pet shop in the city to do so.
The Lincoln Park-based group behind The Puppy Mill Project called the grand reopening "an amazing event," and said it was a "big step" for the city.
Over the years Collar & Leash had faced the wrath of puppy mill picketers in front of its store, and the Raymonds' decision led some of those picketers to begin praising the store.
The Raymonds said they just wish the neighborhood regulars who applauded their decision had supported the store and its new direction.
"I got a lot of feedback from the Puppy Mill project — from everybody — that 'Oh, yeah it's going to boost your sales. People will come to your store and buy your products," Sonja Raymond said.
That didn't happen.
The transformation plan that The Puppy Mill Project and Collar & Leash had established was to let various shelters and rescue groups hold adoptions at the pet shop instead of selling the animals.
Sonja Raymond said those events were a help, and animals were adopted, but none of the people who took home the pets came back to her shop for its services.
"A lot of people [who adopted] were from the neighborhood," she said. "It wasn’t like they couldn’t pay me a visit. That was the disappointing part."
The business had been a staple in the community since July 11, 1956, the day Grandma Raymond opened Collar & Leash, and coincidentally the same day Dan Raymond was born.
But after the store stopped selling dogs and cats, many of the former regular customers who had bought their family pets at Collar & Leash began to question whether the pets they bought were from mills.
"It did hurt business pretty bad," Sonja Raymond said. "A lot of people were really grateful that we did it, but didn't bring their dogs to get groomed by me or come in to buy our products."
The Raymonds decided to cut their losses and sell their three-story building to a real estate developer, who plans to add two more stories to the top and convert it to residential units with retail on the first floor.
On Monday, Sonja Raymond worked her way from cage to cage packing up the remaining animals, which are being taken to various rescue shelters.
There were a mother bunny with two 2-week-old babies, seven guinea pigs and seven degus left.
She stayed at the store much later than she expected to make sure it was her last time.
"It's too sad. I just can't come back," she said.
Still, she's happy with the decision to stop selling dogs and cats, Sonja Raymond said.
Her 57-year-old husband, under pressures from the business, had a quadruple bypass last year.
"It's got a lot to do with the stress of being picketed, having issues of where we got our puppies from," she said. "He's doing better now."
The Raymonds plan to continue operating their grooming and boarding business at 3541 W. Columbus Ave. in Ashburn.
"We are going to keep the dream alive, just kind of relax a bit," Sonja Raymond said.