Jul. 22—LA GRANDE — Allyson Smith got her first exotic pet — a tarantula — at 10 years old. She was hooked and spent years learning about and raising all manner of reptiles, amphibians and fish.
More than 18 years later, Smith now owns Savage Serpents, a reptile specialty store that opened its doors in downtown La Grande this June.
"I've always had a fondness for things that are a little bit out of the ordinary," Smith said. "I definitely love to advocate for things that are kind of seen as scary or intimidating."
Smith, who grew up in Boise, moved to La Grande more than seven years ago. She joined the team at Petsense after it opened in 2018 and soon became store manager. Smith hoped to create a space where people could come not only for supplies but to see animals and also interact with and learn about them. She also found herself eager to expand the store's resources for other reptile owners in the Union County area.
"I just felt like the selection of supplies and live animal accessibility in general in La Grande was very lacking," Smith said. "I kind of just wanted to do it myself."
She began hosting "Reptile Rallies" at Petsense, where she brought in some of her reptiles and shared her insights with shoppers. The store didn't sell live mice, so Smith began breeding mice and various species of insects to sell as live feeders by word of mouth. Her venture quickly gained popularity among La Grande's reptile owners.
After giving birth to her daughter in January, Smith decided it was time to turn her passion into a brick-and-mortar business. Her father, Ron Smith, found the Adams Avenue location on Facebook Marketplace shortly before she was set to move into the old Schwartz Ink storefront on Jefferson and Fir avenues.
Smith began to set up shop at the beginning of June, and with the help of friends and family she opened the store to the public on June 18.
"It's been a dream of hers for a long time to open a store like this," Ron Smith said.
The new store, which used to house Find Your Why Travel Agency, now is home to almost 100 animals, from corn snakes and ball pythons to tarantulas and tortoises. Smith noted that being on the main street through downtown has been good for business.
"I can't tell you how much clientele the movie theater alone has gotten me," she said. "People walk by and they're like, wait, what is that?"
Customers can purchase animals and supplies from Savage Serpents. Smith sells food and enclosure supplies, as well as heat lamps, fake foliage and hiding places. For locals such as David Sams, having a specialized store in town is a welcome change.
Sams, who grew up in La Grande and rescued reptiles and birds for more than 20 years in Union County, met Smith when she worked at Petsense. He recalled having to commute to Boise or Walla Walla for frozen feeder mice with an ice chest.
"Now we can buy them locally," he said.
Smith said she plans to expand her educational programs, breeding projects and aquatics selection. She will continue to offer rescue services around the county and hopes to provide short-terms and long-term boarding services for reptiles and amphibians.
As for the storefront, Smith wants an interactive space for customers.
"I'd like to build out a lot of enclosures and have a lot more display animals," she noted. "So it's a lot more like a zoo."
Smith still recalls her first sale in the store — a tokay gecko. For her, it was an amazing feeling to send the bright blue, orange-spotted home with a new owner.
"It's my passion to share these animals with people," she said, "and to actually let people know that a lot of times these are very rewarding pets."
Shannon Golden is a reporter for The Observer. Contact her at 541-624-6015 firstname.lastname@example.org.