By John Addyman
Owner of Birds Unlimited in Webster shares his passion for birds
“Birds are as smart and as affectionate as a dog or cat,” Paul Lewis said. He isn’t kidding.
“Sounds like a sales pitch, doesn’t it? But if you know somebody who has a bird and the bird comes over to you, puts his head down to get scratched, won’t leave you alone, sits on your shoulder; it’s like a dog or cat. They’re that sharp. It’s tough for me to convey that to people. A lot of birds are just two or three generations from the wild. Look at all the behavior problems we have in dogs and cats and how long have they been domesticated?” he added.
Lewis, 65, is sitting in his office at the back of his Birds Unlimited store on Empire Boulevard in Webster.
He opened his first store in 1990 at the corner of routes 250 and 441 in Penfield. He’s been on a quiet mission: to get the right people connected with the right bird.
“A nice bird really makes an impact on people,” he said. “There’s nothing like a bird. It flies. It has feathers. One is so different from another. If you get two of the same species they act differently and they’re really good for people. They make good pets for a few people.”
Then he quickly added, “There are a lot of people who don’t do well with them.”
He has learned a lesson over the years. It’s part of the unusual tone of his store: “We don’t push birds here,” he said firmly. “They’ll sell, but we don’t push them.”
In a store full of big, beautiful and blazingly colorful birds with vocal personalities who all seem to know something you don’t, Lewis and his carefully chosen staff leave the decision-making entirely up to the customer. Then gently press in with all kinds of support and training to do their best to make sure the match between human and bird is a solid one.
“A cockatiel will live 20-30 years,” he said. “Parakeets [budgies] are fun to have for seven, 10 years. My big thing is education. I love it when I get a customer who asks good questions.”
His office is small and crowded with large cages for birds who are being boarded while their humans are away, and with some breeding pairs of conures, a South American bird that’s a smaller member of the parrot family. They’re all noisy in different degrees. And they’re all watching him as he talks or walks past them.
“As long as I can remember as a little kid, I was always out playing in dirt trying to keep anything that crawled, slithered or flew. I’d catch them and let them go again. I was always a catch-and-release kind of kid. My life was laid out for me since I was 5, 6 years old. I just loved animals; I still do,” he said. “When I see bird babies hatch here in the store it’s just the greatest thing going. I suppose when that’s not great to me anymore, it’s time for me to call it a day in the pet business, but it’s still great.”
When he was a teen, he raised and sold tropical fish and worked his way into a job at a pet store at age 14.
“Looking back, I was probably a nuisance in that store because I was in there two, three, four five times a week,” he said. “They hired me at minimum wage of $1.65 an hour. It was OK. I was in high school. I didn’t drink. I saved my money and bought a new car when I was 18. Beautiful. Things were good.”
By the time he was 17, Lewis was raising birds on his own after a scarlet macaw in the pet store riveted his attention.
“I was just enamored with this bird and it was not a friendly bird. We got along pretty good. I remember people saying, ‘How much is this bird worth?’ I’d say, ‘Man, probably $300, but it’s not for sale.’”
“$300 dollars!” the shocked customer would ask. Lewis smiles at that memory. “Now the same bird is $6,000.”
“In those days it was pretty much unheard of to raise parrots in captivity,” he explained. “I knew a couple of people who had, and I figured if they had, I should be able to. So, from the time I was 17 I was raising some birds. I started with cockatiels. I sold them out of the house, running ads in the newspaper. Then I started raising more birds and it became easier to sell to pet stores.”
At 21, he bought his own house and started working for his brother Mike, who is a dentist, as a lab technician and doing some prosthetic work.
“I went to a lot of conventions and seminars to learn about birds. By the time I was 23, I was writing for an international publication, “Parrot World,” strictly parrots, everything from breeding to behavior to summarizing the conference I had just gone to,” he said.
After 12 years in his brother’s office, Lewis started to grate with all the changes in medicine.
“You had to double-glove and mask and the whole HIV thing had exploded,” Lewis said. “I was almost getting germaphobic.”
Time for a change.
He was ready to make a regular business out of his success with breeding and raising birds.
“I took a night course at RIT on starting a business and that helped a great deal but left a lot of areas empty for when you actually started a small business,” he said. “I had to learn a lot on my own: town stuff, how to schmooze people, variances and things, things that pop up that somebody should have told you about.”
The Penfield store opened in 1990. After 18 years, he moved to a much larger space on Empire Boulevard. When he opened his first business, he had birds, cages and feed. And how that business has grown.
“It’s kind of interesting,” he said, reflecting on the beginning. “I had this really nice bird food for $2.98 a pound and I couldn’t sell the stuff for the life of me. Now, $2.98 is cheap food by most standards. Food is more like $10 a pound today.”
He started stocking toys. Today, they’re a big part of the business.
“You have to keep the birds entertained,” he explained. “Parrots are so smart you need to create stimulation for them. You have to create an environment for them. They live a long time — 30 to 40 years, regularly. It’s up to me to educate people about the environment the bird can thrive in.”
That educational component, making sure customers can take care of the birds they buy, got kicked off early in Lewis’s store management.
“I put a little ad in the newspaper, for people who have an interest in birds, we’re getting a club together and it exploded. We had 250 members in a year and a half. I started the bird club basically because when I was getting birds for breeding, I would answer ads in the newspaper and I would ask what kind of bird they were selling and they couldn’t even tell me what kind of bird it was. So, I knew there was a need to educate people and I started the club and it worked great.”
They do programs at schools and used to do the Rochester Museum and Science Center.
“We go in, don’t mention the store, it wasn’t a publicity thing, it’s strictly to educate. This year we did several classes at one school. The kids ask great questions and you can tell they did their homework,” he said.
Lewis got creative in getting things for his own birds. As the bird club grew, he realized he could do some commerce by supplying other bird owners with the same things he was buying. Instead of customers going elsewhere through mail order, they could swoop in and buy off the shelf from him.
The Empire Boulevard store footprint went from 1,200 square feet to 2,400 square feet to today’s 3,600 square feet.
“I try to have everything people need. I’m the place that I want people to walk in here and think they’re found Disneyland for people who like birds. I have stuff here that doesn’t sell terribly well, but if someone comes in here looking for a stainless-steel cage, I’m the guy who’s supposed to have it. We hear it all the time,” Lewis said. “People will stop in and say, ‘I’ve been driving by here and didn’t know what it was.’ They come in and there’s birds flying in here. Someone who settles on a starter bird like a parakeet will invest about $125 in the bird, the cage, food and toys,”
This is not like collecting stamps or playing music,” he cautioned. “You really have to do your animal stuff every day. You’re not putting stamps in a drawer and coming back to them when you have time. You got to do your animals (dog, cat, bird, whatever) every day. A bird is a little more environmentally sensitive than a dog or cat. When you have a bird, you’re not just putting out fresh food or water in every day. You need to physically look to see if the bird is active, vocalizing like he normally does, that the droppings on the bottom of the cage are the normal amounts and give them toys to play with — see that parts are normally chewed up. Change the paper every day. Cleaning and feeding is everything, but you have to observe the bird to make sure its acting normally.”
“This is a pet that you can come home to at night. It will hear your car in the driveway and start looking for attention; they are that attuned with their owners and know what’s going on. They’re super-observant and can read your emotions better than you can read their body language and everything,” he added.
“People enjoy their experience here and come back for another bird,” Lewis said. “That makes my life easier because we’ve already educated that person about what a bird is or how to take care of it. My vet used to say birds are like potato chips, you can’t have just one.”
Staff is so important to a niche business like Birds Unlimited. Over the years, many of his workers have come to him with extensive book and hands-on learning about taking care of birds. Lewis’s staff will groom flight feathers and toenails on a bird purchased in the store for free three times a year and it’s a busy service.
“Right now, I have the best staff I’ve ever had,” Lewis said. “April Danielle, our operations manager, came on in May. She had been a customer for years and she liked the store a lot and just kept frequenting it. She asked for a job and for some reason I didn’t hire her. Then she just started showing up and helping people and I kinda felt guilty, so I said, ‘Figure out a schedule and I’ll put you on the payroll.’ She’s been top-notch ever since and has probably helped me more than anybody.”
Taylor Ioriatti is the store manager, promoted to the position in the summer after nearly four years working with Lewis.
“She has great people skills, has a good understanding of the bird business and at this point, is the employee who’s been with me the longest,” he said. “She has a couple of her own pet birds as well.”
Lewis said he lives at the store, but he also has a second life, as a rhythm guitarist for the rock group Open G.
“It’s four guys. We play every few weeks at Whiskey River in Charlotte and in the War Memorial happy hour before Amerks games and the Tap It bar in Spencerport. I’ve played guitar since I was a kid. The band started 15-17 years ago. It’s still fun. It gets me out of the store, gets my mind on something else. When customers come out to see me play, they want to talk music, not bird, which is fine with me. I talk bird all day long. Music is a nice change.”