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The Story Behind Fairfax's Beloved Pet Shop, Bark n' Bitches

The Story Behind Fairfax's Beloved Pet Shop, Bark n' Bitches

By Kat Thompson

When strolling through Los Angeles’s famed Fairfax neighborhood, there’s a couple of things that may stop you in your tracks. If you’re into streetwear and looking to pick up the latest Supreme drop, it may be the outstretched line snaking around the block that leaves you prickly and stunned. If you’re into vintage goods and unique tchotchkes, the Melrose flea market might be what entices you. And if you’re like me—and also just a regular, normal human being—you may find yourself stopped dead in front of Bark n’ Bitches, nose pressed up against the glass, ogling at the tiny puppies napping in the window.

I find myself at Bark n’ Bitches on a sunny Friday afternoon. The shop is buzzing with activity—some dogs are excitedly scurrying about, others are resting on cozy cushions under tables of treats. There’s a small crowd of people milling about, cooing at some of the peppier pups or searching for the perfect indestructible toy for their own dogs. At the center of this hurricane of liveliness is the shop’s owner, Shannon von Roemer, mopping up after the pooches, assisting customers with adoption questions, and giving the occasional head scratch to dogs trotting by.

Bark n’ Bitches is Los Angeles’s first humane pet shop, housing only rescued dogs looking for their forever (furever?) home. The shop got started twelve years ago when owner Shannon von Roemer channeled her love for animals into an eclectic boutique for pet lovers everywhere. “The story goes like this: I want to say 1998 or something,” Shannon began, her legs crossed while seated on a worn, chewed up teakwood bench in the back of the shop. Two dogs are curled up next to her, asleep.

“My boyfriend and I were volunteering on Skid Row, at Sixth and Gladys, and I already had this affinity towards animals anyway. And so I went there going like, ‘Don’t let me see any strays, don’t let me see any strays,’ and of course there was a stray puppy.” That stray puppy Shannon found—a lab and pitbull mix lovingly named Jimi (after Jimi Hendrix)—changed Shannon’s life. Though he was filthy, and she tried to find out if he had actual owners within the area, it seems that fate led them to one another. “He really made me aware of the plight of homeless dogs in LA county,” she remarked thoughtfully.

Shannon.

But Bark n’ Bitches wasn’t originally intended to be a rescue dog shop. After helping a friend start up their own pet store boutique, Shannon—who was enamored with the entire process (from designing the space, to selecting the range of products)—decided to set up her own spot.

In 2006, Fairfax was a completely different block. There were mostly grocers, tchotchke shops, and the famous Canter’s Deli, but Shannon knew the space had potential. “I remember I kept going down to Supreme, like, ‘Tell me about your business again? How long have you been here? And people are really coming in?’ Just all that. Then somebody who had a business down here that’s no longer there showed me this article in The LA Times that actually talked about Fairfax becoming the next thing. So between my intuition, me knowing so well from living around here the kind of mindset of the people, and me resonating with these types of people, I just thought, These are my kind of people here.” Shannon is animated when she talks about the space. She looks up like she’s imagining how it all was back then, and lights up suddenly. “You’ll die when you see what I rented.”

Shannon ventures to the back of the store and returns with a photo album. We spend the next ten minutes flipping through it, me peering curiously at each picture while Shannon points out highlights—including the teakwood bench she’s sitting on before it got completely chewed up by dogs. “The store used to be so pretty,” she says with a sad smile, shutting the album. “But it has character now,” I add earnestly, “and plus, you’ve rescued how many dogs now?”

The answer is an upwards of 7000 dogs. The adoptions began when Shannon collaborated with a friend to host adoption events every weekend in the store. It wasn’t supposed to be permanent. But more and more, Shannon saw firsthand the need to support animal rescue efforts in LA. She began having dogs in the shop full time, greeting customers alongside her. The shop was even named the “best impromptu pet therapy” by LA Weekly.  “There were still no ordinances against puppy mill pet shops or anything like that. So I was just kind of doing it under the radar.” This went on for about a year, until one day, animal control showed up.

“They got a complaint that there was pee on the floor, but they didn’t care about that. They cared about, ‘Do you have a license or permit to do this?’ And I was like, ‘Oh no! The dogs don’t stay here!’ which was a lie. But they were like, ‘You have to get a permit.’ So that just turned into a whole scary thing...” It was scary for a multitude of reasons. It was 2008—the economy wasn’t doing well, banks were folding, and small businesses were shuttering. And to top it off, animal control was pressing Shannon on her permits, all the while all she wanted to do was save dogs and her business. “Even my landlord was like, ‘Good luck. You’re lucky if three or four months down the road you get it.’”

The whole process turned out to be effortless. Shannon showed up to Los Angeles’s Department of Building and Safety at 8 AM and left with her permit by mid-afternoon. “When it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. That’s the way I feel about it—that this was clearly meant to be. It’s just been really major trial and error in a very painful, expensive way,” Shannon laughs. “It’s been a long, painful, and difficult journey. But I’m still here.”

And the community that Bark n’ Bitches fosters is not only still here, it’s thriving—both globally and locally. Shannon rescues dogs from all over the world, from China, to Costa Rica, to South Korea. Tourists who come to walk the famous Fairfax block filter in unexpectedly and leave with a desire to share the store’s mission and bring her rescue concept back to their own countries.

On a local scale, Shannon also helps students and volunteers get their daily dose of dog love. “It’s not just about honoring the animals, it’s about honoring the communities. A lot of these kids, since we’re across from Fairfax High, we have a great relationship with them and they have to do community service. A lot of these kids are just kind of lost.” But they find pieces of themselves in the care they give back to Bark n’ Bitches and the dogs, whether it be volunteering in the store, fostering pups, or even walking dogs (like R&B songstress Joyce Wrice does!). “Some of these kids are still helping me years later. Two of these kids have actually forged careers in the veterinary field,” Shannon tells me, glowing with pride.

It’s obvious the impact Shannon has made here: throughout our hour long interview, she is stopped or pulled away several times either by former student volunteers, adopters, or longtime friends of the space. We’re also occasionally interrupted by dogs—either Zazu being naughty, Darcy shyly approaching for some pets, or sweet (and extremely pregnant) LaVerne waddling over for a neck scratch.

The shop is the best example of chaotic good that I can find. Though Shannon forged her way as a bit of a rule breaker with a cheeky streak (”I have that personality where I would throw the word bitch in [the name of my store]—and I did”), she’s devoted her life to improving her community and giving new opportunities of life for abandoned animals.

“I see the worst in humanity, I see all the neglect and the abuse. There’s a lot. And the level of ignorance is a lot. There’s just some days I can’t stand it... but I’m still here.”

***

Bark n’ Bitches is always looking for volunteers and fosters. Follow them on Instagram @barknbitches.

Photography by Nathanael Turner.

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