LONGWOOD — A three-decade-old pet store on Southern Boulevard that survived a ferocious fire a few years ago may soon be forced to shut its doors unless the owner can raise $12,000 he owes the government by Monday.
David Rios, owner of Stephanie Amanda Ashley Pet Center (which is named for his daughters), said an Internal Revenue Service agent visited his shop Thursday and presented him a notice giving him until Aug. 5 to pay the hefty fine, otherwise the government could seize his store.
The agency had charged him a $1,000 penalty each month for a year following the 2008 fire when he stopped paying taxes while he worked to open a new shop a few storefronts down from the location that had been leveled by the blaze, Rios said. He has been working with an accountant and a lawyer over the past few years to fight the fee.
Many longtime customers found new pet stores in the year his shop was closed, Rios said, and business has been slower than usual lately, leaving Rios no savings to draw on and forcing him to consider selling his car and some family jewelry and to borrow from friends in order to pay the fine.
The government “gives you a rope with a stone at the end and you sink right to the bottom,” Rios said Friday inside the store at 1091 Southern Blvd.
“All you can do is try to face the music,” he added, “and go forward.”
Rios took over the store in about 1982 after the former owner, his friend, was caught in crossfire outside a restaurant and fatally shot.
For many years, the store flourished — at its peak, it brought in $30,000 a month and Rios took home $1,000 each week.
Then the fire struck in November 2008.
It began in the dry cleaner adjacent to the pet store and spread to several other stores, destroying them all. Almost all of Rios’ animals perished — one parrot that survived died soon after due to depression, Rios said.
In addition to the fines, Rios said he racked up a $30,000 tax bill over the year when he prepared the new store, during which time he couldn’t afford to pay taxes since he wasn’t making any money, he said.
By the time the current storefront opened in October 2009, not only had many former customers moved on, but also the recession was raging.
Today, the store generates about $15,000 each month — half what it used to — and Rios takes home about $400 per week, he said.
“Now you can’t put a nickel away,” Rios said, “because you’ve already spent a quarter.”
His is not the only business hurting on the block.
Jebel Ceesay, who owns the clothing store JB Collection and heads the Southern Boulevard Merchants Association, said other businesses had also seen fewer customers than usual this summer.
“Things are not working good right now for anybody,” he said, adding that last month was especially slow. “I don’t know when was the last time things were that bad.”
On Friday, Rios kept busy as he filled plastic bags with goldfish for customers, walked his golden Chow Chow, Obor, and shook the claw of his blue-feathered and well-mannered parrot, Princessa.
Many of the people who passed through the store were not customers but friends and neighbors — the woman who asked for directions before heading out on an errand, the young boy who gave Rios a hug on his way into the employee restroom, the nearby shopkeeper who (on a different afternoon) dropped by to borrow a few dollars for his cash register.
Rios’ daughter, Amanda, a 21-year-old college student who helps out at the store during school vacations, and his 8-year-old granddaughter, Nya, sorted through signs they made with markers advertising a last-minute sale.
The hope was to raise funds to keep the store afloat — or, if that proves impossible, to unload some merchandise before it closed.
Nya watched her older sister play with the two pet gerbils she was given Friday in return for earning high marks last school year. Then she looked up at Amanda.
“I wish the pet store would stay open,” she said.