Meet the new owner of Alan’s Pets and Plants in Squirrel Hill. She’s 24.

September 25, 2018
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Sara Smith, 24, of Fox Chapel, holds a bearded dragon lizard inside of Alan's Pet and Plants in Squirrel Hill on Aug. 29, 2018.

Sara Smith loves weird creatures.

She has a special bond with reptiles such as bearded dragons, alligators and snakes.

She’s combed the corridors and mazes of colorful fish tanks at Alan’s Pets and Plants in Squirrel Hill for her entire life. The tradition was passed down by her mother, who began visiting the iconic pet store at age 3.

Their enthusiasm and love of the store made it an easy choice for owner Alan Cohen to find a new caretaker.

He’s owned the store on Murray Avenue for more than 49 years and decided over the summer to retire.

“He doesn’t have any children, and he told me ‘I know you will take care of the animals and customers as much as I do, and love them as much as I do.’”

On Labor Day, Smith, who is 24, will take over as the pet store’s new owner. She plans to unveil a new name in a few weeks.

They declined to reveal a sale price, but Cohen, who lives in West Deer, is passing on his pet inventory of fish, birds and reptiles, including one alligator. He’ll only take with him his personal belongings.

Smith, who lives in Fox Chapel, has the ability and knowledge to handle the job. She has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State University, and she worked at a zoo in Dubai for two years.

On the day she signed the paperwork finalizing the deal, she was accepted to an online anthrozoology master’s program at Canisius College in Buffalo.

“Sara has all my confidence,” Cohen said this week as Smith held a bearded dragon in the pet store. “It’s a very good fit.”

The deal came together quickly. Smith said she expressed interest in buying the store about six weeks ago. Cohen, who is 74, was ready to retire.

“The store has been really good to me, not just financially,” Cohen said. “I met a lot of really nice people. We have a lot of third generation people, like Sara, coming in. It’s really difficult to walk away from something you love. When you like what you’re doing, it’s not work.”

He’s already begun introducing Smith to regular customers.

“I look forward to maintain the relationship Alan has with the community,” she said. “Everybody knows him around here.”

The relationship runs deep. Cohen has an old maple leaf hanging above a fish tank that a first-grade boy once gave him after a field trip.

“He comes in with his grandchildren now,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of tremendous stories like this.”

Near the leaf hangs a 2012 photo invitation to Smith’s Fox Chapel graduation and 18th birthday party.

Six years later, she’s excited to take over. She’ll close the store about two weeks for renovations and painting.

“I’m really ready,” she said. “I think I am organized and motivated enough to be a good business owner. I’m sure he’ll still be around at least at the beginning.”

As far as a new name, Smith said she’s still pondering a few ideas.

“I would like to have his blessing for the name,” she said of Cohen.

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