By Elizabeth Barber
Special to DNAinfo.com New York
UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS — Leaning over a car’s open trunk in a small Fordham Road storefront, John Paula doesn’t notice the bright red parrot toddling around his feet. He’s busy, carefully installing bass speakers that will make the car throb with the hip-hop beats that pulse through the neighborhood.
Besides, renegade birds are common here.
Wedged between a Toyota dealership and a live poultry shop, 248 West Fordham Road is home to two businesses: JV Auto Sound and JV Pet Shop.
It's a hybrid auto and pet shop where the incessant squawk of birds competes with a stereo booming danceable Spanish tracks and where mechanics two-step around their feathered friends bobbing at their ankles.
Shirley Hernandez, who runs the pet shop, said owner Vladimir Paula bought the auto business from a financially strapped previous owner roughly four years ago, but soon struggled himself as police upped efforts to ticket drivers for the kinds of car add-ons he installed — tinted windows and amplifiers that blast music at citation-worthy volumes.
“Everything we do, you get ticketed for,” she said.
In the market for a supplementary income, the owner, who could not be reached for comment, opened a second shop in May, dividing the store to avoid footing a second rent bill, Hernandez said.
A small, second-story space at the store’s back now plays host to a motley collection of plumed parrots, while other giddy birds have taken up residence in the main garage, along with a few kittens and puppies.
JV Pet Shop, located in a lonely corridor of the West Bronx where impatient drivers line up to cross the University Heights Bridge, has had little business since it opened. Weeks have passed during which not a single bird was sold, Hernandez said, adding that the waiting for customers is sometimes alleviated when someone stops in for a birdcage, which run from $35 to $295, or for a $2 packet of birdseed.
The shop has had no better luck selling the puppies and kittens that curl around the feet of employees as they scrub clean the auto garage on Saturday mornings. Its most recent sale was to Adventura Batista, a friend of one of the employees, who purchased a cat more than two months ago. He named the cat after himself, he said.
Still, Hernandez is optimistic that business will improve, she said, adding that the pet store occupies a niche formerly vacant in this corner of the borough.
“It’s hard to find these kinds of birds in the Bronx,” said Hernandez. “I think it’s going to be good.”
Hernandez, who buys her stock from breeders as far away as Florida, expects the business will be particularly popular with elderly people looking for friendly, feathered pets, she said.
“You can talk to them so you don’t feel lonely,” Hernandez said. “Birds are great company.”
Indeed, picking out a bird here is a delicate process of sussing out a pet's temperament and assessing how well a customer and a parrot will get along — after all, the shop does not accept returned animals, and signs posted around the space warn potential buyers against spontaneous purchases.
“They’re like people,” said Hernandez of the birds. “Today, they might be in one mood. Tomorrow, they might feel differently.”
A fluffy white cockatoo perched on a stand in the garage has “a good attitude,” said Hernandez as she stroked the bird. The parrot, blue-eyed and stoic, stared seriously at mechanic John Paula as he fitted a gleaming Lexus with $1,900 in stereo equipment.
Other birds are less accommodating.
The $12 parakeets — tiny, pastel-colored birds that flit at the bars of their cage — are interested less in companionship, more in escape. The African Gray — a brooding parrot that goes for $900 and who seems to regard the parakeets with a mixture of pity and scorn — is likely to bite anyone it doesn’t know, Hernandez said.
Still, as the “most intelligent parrot in the world,” the African Gray is her best-selling bird, she said.
In a bid to build a loyal customer base, Hernandez says she has priced the birds slightly lower than what they might sell for elsewhere. Still, prices can run high. Several of the breeds sell for more than $1,000. A rose-breasted cockatoo — a coy, pink bird that seems self-aware of its own prettiness — is priced at $2,000.
Days here are a waiting game for birds and customers alike. Every morning, Hernandez lets the birds with clipped wings out of their cages to briefly exercise. They stand on top of their cages and flap their wings, she said.
The rest of the day is long, interrupted with regular feedings, she said, adding that she frequently talks to the parrots, checking in “to see how they’re doing, how they’re feeling.”
Most of the activity at the storefront is still in the downstairs garage space into which customers pull their cars. Business here has been slow but steady, Paula said. Although the store officially closes at 7 p.m., he says he often doesn’t leave until well after midnight, working late on cars that customers drop off just before closing.
Asked if customers will get ticketed for their spruced-up cars, he smiles and shrugs his shoulders — “it’s possible,” he said, holding a fistful of cables.
At his side, one customer, Alfredo Cedeno, was waiting for his car to be finished.
He has yet to purchase any animals.