Astoria Characters: The Guy Who Saved the Pet Store

After Tom Odermatt flips on the fluorescent overhead lights, he heads to the aquariums, where he jokes around with the jocularly striped clownfish, who swim rapidly to the top of the tank to greet him.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tom opened Tom’s Pet Supply in July.

He pokes his finger into the water, which, thanks to artificial lighting, is deep blue like the sea, and attracts a cleaner shrimp who goes by the name of Jacques. The crustacean clings to Tom’s appendage, stripping it of parasites.

Next, Tom heads to the back of Tom’s Pet Supply and looks in on the canaries and parakeets and rodents and reptiles.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tom’s Pet Supply is on Broadway at 21st Street.

He scoops Artemis, the yellow and orange bearded dragon, into his hands, where the lizard lounges lazily until released back into his glass house.

Tom presents Hazelnut, the little latte-colored mouse, who climbs all over his hand at a frenetic pace, wispy whiskers quivering in excitement.

“Are you afraid of snakes?” he asks as he replaces Hazelnut with Fendi, a petite albino corn snake who coils his buttercream- and tangerine-spotted body around his arm like a tourniquet.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Artemis the bearded dragon.

Little One, the 26-year-old red-footed tortoise who is Tom’s personal pet, isn’t quite as demonstrative.

“She’s shy,” he says. “It took a long time for her to get used to me.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Goldfish out for a swim.

This is how Tom, who’s like a shiny new sports car roaring out of the showroom for the first time, starts every day.

God, how he loves it.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tom fell in love with animals when he was 3.

Tom, who is 22, opened Tom’s Pet Supply in the summer of 2019 on the former premises of Petland Discounts, a regional chain that closed after more than a half century in business.

Tom was born and raised around the corner from the Broadway store, which is in the strip mall that features the Bel-Aire Diner, and worked for Petland Discounts while he was studying at Fordham University.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Hazelnut takes a walk.

Tom, who has cherub cheeks and wears his dark locks in a man bun, has a long history with pet stores.

He fell in love with animals when he was 3 and started begging for a puppy shortly thereafter.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tom has a degree in sociology.

“I was raised by my mom and grandmother, and although they love animals, they never let me have a puppy,” he says, adding that the death of a dog long before his time left them too heartbroken to get another.

He was, however, allowed to have fish, hermit crabs, turtles, hamsters and bearded dragons.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Discus fish chilling.

“I was really terrible,” he says. “I wanted to go in every pet store I saw, and I would throw a fit if I did not get to go in.”

By the time he was in high school, Tom had become what he calls a frequent pest at Petland Discounts.

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Tom loves being at the store seven days a week.

“I used to come in and bother the manager for a job,” he says. “But you have to be 18 to work with animals, and I wasn’t.”

The closing of Petland Discounts came at an opportune time for Tom: He graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in May and started revamping the store in June.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Fendi giving Tom a hug.

There was much speculation in the neighborhood about the future of the space.

“I kept up with my customers, and one of them called me and said, ‘Did you hear about the new pet store? The owner’s name is Tom, and I think I know who he is. You should apply for a job there.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tom worked for Petland Discounts through college.

Tom demurred, saying he didn’t think it was necessary for him to do so.

“I told her the new owner was indeed Tom, but not the one she was thinking of,” he says. “When she asked me how I knew, I said, ‘It’s me,’ and she burst out laughing.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Guppies hanging out.

Needless to say, pet owners were thrilled when Tom’s Pet Supply opened in July.

“I took all my savings, and I got some help from my family,” Tom says. “A lot of people don’t think there’s a place for a local pet store, and I don’t agree. People need to see the animals right there in front of them, and they need a place to go where people are knowledgeable to get answers you can’t get by Googling on the Internet.”

Tom and his 7-month-old rescue puppy Duck, whose bed is by the cash register, man the store seven days a week with the help of a full-time manager.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jacques the cleaner shrimp is on the job.

“I love being here,” Tom says. “People ask me whether I’m tired, but I’m not. It’s so exciting because every day, there’s something new.”

Tom says he has no grand plans – at least not yet – for adding a store or starting a chain.

“I’ve always wanted to work with animals, and I have a degree in sociology, which deals with the interactions of people, so this is the perfect combination,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tom’s future is more of the present.

He’s very sure about his future.

“What will I be doing five years from now? This,” he says, as he hangs the cages of parakeets near the front of the store. “What will I be doing 10 years from now? This.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling