While most wild bird stores are owned by franchises seeking to cash in on the millions of Americans who enjoy feeding and attracting birds, Wild Bird Store owners Jon and Shani Friedman are bird watchers who own a store that seeks to serve people just like themselves.

The Friedmans started the store in 1992 after spending a day driving around Tucson looking for quality bird feed for their many bird feeders and not finding what they were looking for.

Friedman, who is an artist and has a degree in art, spent most of his life as the executive director of several nonprofit art organizations in Bisbee and Colorado. Shani was a registered nurse.

Both are avid bird watchers and, though they lack degrees in ornithology, zoology or animal behavior, can be considered experts on the birds of Southeastern Arizona.

At the time of their fruitless search for bird food, Jon said he was discontented with the art industry and the couple was looking for a business into which they could invest their small nest egg of savings.

"We knew a lot of folks who like feeding birds and they must be having the same problem we're having," Jon Friedman said.

At the time, there was only one store in the country that catered solely to bird watchers and it was in the Middle West and little known, so getting a loan to start the business wasn't easy.

"I literally got laughed out of the (first) bank I went into," Friedman said.

But the couple persevered and, on the basis of an exceptional business plan Jon wrote, actually got an agency that was to become the federal Small Business Administration to seriously consider loaning the couple the money.

But the day was saved when a friend loaned them the money instead.

The first store opened in the same plaza the current store is in, but it was 1,400 square feet smaller. Within three months business was so brisk the store was nearly overwhelmed, and though they had just started, the Friedman's decided to risk an expansion and moved two doors down and into a larger space that was a former dance studio. The ersatz parquet floor and large mirror of the dance studio are still part of the store today.

Eleven years later its the Friedmans who are doing the laughing as the store has become wildly successful.

The store sells an incredible array of products, including: bird feed; bird feeders, which include species-specific bird feeders; bird houses, which include species-specific bird houses; bird books; bird baths; bird art; bird photos; bird jewelry (jewelry with birds on it for humans, not the other way around); and binoculars for watching birds.

And while other stores may offer a similar array of products they won't come close to the uniqueness and quality of what is sold at the Wild Bird Store.

The reason for that is because, "almost all of our stock is handmade -- 80 percent is made by us, the vast majority of the rest is made by local businesses or artists," Friedman said.

"Everything I sell is going to have a guarantee. Virtually everything I sell has a lifetime warranty. Everything we sell works, and that's what keeps people coming back."

The species-specific feeders have been developed and tested by him to make sure they work.

For instance, he has feeders specifically for woodpeckers, a feeder for flycatchers, feeders that allow small birds in but not larger, more intrusive pigeons and doves, he has feeders that are just for cardinals and pyrrholuxia and of course several different kinds of hummingbird feeders for several different kinds of hummingbirds.

"If a bird is known to exist in the area, we can help you attract that bird," Friedman said.

What's more, he makes his own bird feed. There are more than 16 different types of bird food, including seed mixes that the Friedmans hand mix and a feed for birds that eat nuts and insects called, none too surprisingly, Nuts 'n' Bugs.

Nut 'n' Bugs is a mix of freeze dried fruit flys and pecans than can be spread on different types of feeders which the store sells to attract birds, especially woodpeckers, that eat nuts and bugs.

The mixture has become so popular, he's now manufacturing thousands of pounds a week and wholesaling it across the country, including to several prominent zoos.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Friedman was alone in the store and trying to participate in an interview but couldn't because of the steady stream of customers buying seed and feeders.

Asked if he was unusually busy, Friedman said, "Nah, this is kind of slow. You should have been here this morning, it was crazy."

The genius in the store is that it serves the entire spectrum of bird watchers.

"It's a hobby in which you can get involved to whatever degree is comfortable. Some couldn't care less if a bird is a sparrow or a finch, they just like having birds around," Friedman said.

"Putting out feeders and attracting birds is the way they get close to nature."

As the level of a customer's interest in birds grows, the store can continue to scratch their itch. The store has such a faithful following that past customers who have moved as far away as Rhode Island continue to place orders for Nuts 'n" Bugs, or call to ask questions about a bird they saw.

But that faithfulness is more than just having sold a quality product, it's the quality of the information the Friedman's impart on their customers that spurs that loyalty.

"If people come to you, they expect you to know things and be able to answer their questions," Friedman said.

"We get to know you by your name and people appreciate it. But most importantly, people get advice that's accurate and dependable."

The store also publishes a bimonthly newsletter that is part of a discount plan. By signing up for the newsletter, customers get discounts on feed and some feeders. The newsletter is filled with information about birds that is useful to the novice or the expert. Friedman added that Northwest EXPLORER readers will be given a 10 percent discount on their total sale if they mention this article.

The Wild Bird Store is open every day except holidays. The Friedmans, who operate the store with their son and daughter-in-law, have plans to open a store in the Northwest later this year. For information, call 322-9466.

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