Despite the number of reptiles, amphibians and fish in the building, the most popular animal at Piedmont Fish and Reptile is Kallie, the owner’s dog. Rescued from a pound three years ago, she is the lifeblood of the store and a popular attraction. According to Geoff Bengel, owner of the small business in Gibsonville, customers would panic if Kallie wasn’t roaming the shop, but no one would notice if he was gone for a week.
He couldn’t be more wrong.
STARTING A BUSINESS ON THE FLY
Bengel started Piedmont Fish and Reptile seven years ago as a senior at Appalachian State University, selling aquatic supplies out of the back of his Jeep Wrangler. It was originally a maintenance and installation company, but gained a retail location in 2008 to sell animals and pet products. Bengel said like anybody, he went into the business to make money. But he gets more out of it than he imagined — and his customers do too.
“We have a great time in here, we enjoy what we do,” he said. “Our customers that come in every day enjoy what we do. They’re always very enthusiastic, there’s lots of stories, tales and wild adventures.”
Bengel is on a wild adventure of his own. A criminal justice major, he said he had no idea what it took to run a business. He didn’t know how to file his taxes. He had no idea where he was going.
He ended up on Burlington Avenue, with a loyal following and a store filled with pets. The idea of a local, independent business was appealing to customers. A fan base emerged because of Bengel’s personal attention and knowledge.
“Geoff is the greatest human of all time,” Elon University junior Mike Aneser said. “I would want to hang out with him socially. I hope he doesn’t leave, I love that man.”
APPEALING TO THE LOCALS
According to Bengel, this is no accident.
“That is half of what all this is,” he said. “You can get this stuff anymore, at a commercial (store), you can get it online. I like to think that my customers come back because of the personality of the shop. And at the end of the day it’s Geoff, Fish, Reptile. I take this stuff personally.”
Some of the store’s visitors said it’s obvious Bengel cares. It makes a big difference that he isn’t a typical salesman, Elon junior Jeff Stern said.
“I’ve noticed that going into a locally-owned business, they tend to be more knowledgeable and just more passionate about what they’re selling,” Stern said. “When I’m looking to learn information and try and gain knowledge about what I’m purchasing I find that going to locally owned businesses definitely is beneficial.”
The customers are right. Bengel said being truly passionate about the store is what led him into the business.
“I love what I do, that was very important to me, and being your own boss was very important to me too because you can dictate your free time, your pay,” he said. “However, in the real world, even bosses have bosses. It has been very self-sacrificing at some times.”
Those times have added up.
CLOSING UP SHOP WHILE LEAVING DOORS OPEN
After seven years since he began the business, Bengel said he has grown tired of the retail life. Piedmont Fish and Reptile now has limited hours, and the shop is set to close March 10. But the vision is still alive.
According to Bengel, Piedmont Fish and Reptile is primarily an aquarium service and installation company, and this will remain the company’s focus in the future. His plan is to shift away from fish and reptiles, rather than stay in the business for financial purposes.
“I do carry a certain badge of ethics, and if it’s between having to make money and being unethical, it is an animal at the end of the day,” he said. “I’d rather just do it right than do it for the wrong reasons.”
Although the retail location is closing its doors, Bengel said he doesn’t regret his decision to venture into local business.
“It’s been an overall good decision,” he said. “I didn’t want to be sitting somewhere at a job I hate making good money saying, ‘I wonder what if.’”
In the wake of his decision to close the store, Bengel is leaving behind a group of devoted customers. His knowledge and passion brought families, students and community members to the small shop seven days a week.
And it wasn’t Kallie they were coming for.