Before there was Famous Footwear or the Men's Wearhouse, Chris Gowen recalls when Len's Shoe Box and Jules Pilch were the go-to shops in Hatboro.
Gowen, 52, a lifelong Hatboro resident - except for his first year of life in Ambler - remembers when Victorian houses dotted the borough, Jack's Clothing, and Woolworth were situated where current borough mainstays like Cafe La Fontana currently reside.
"That's when those guys ruled the roost," Gowen said, adding that he remembers decades ago when traffic cops were stationed at Williams and York roads on Friday nights helping to direct traffic. "People didn't come into town to do events. They came into town to go shopping."
When asked what caused the shift, Gowen, who had worked for several merchants before heading off to college in 1978, chalked up the transformation to the birth of malls, including nearby Village Mall in Horsham, coupled with business owners getting "older."
"They retired and there was nobody behind them to take over," Gowen said.
Now, a borough businessman himself, Gowen, the owner of A Dog's Life (And a Cat's Too), is facing the same predicament. Gowen's full-time job in Newark, Del. - and months of lengthy commutes - has pushed Gowen and his wife, Mary Ann, to close the store and move. He tried for months to find someone to purchase the business, but after several failed attempts plans to close on Jan. 31.
"It's breaking my heart," Gowen said, during a recent busy day at A Dog's Life. "The last day on the 31st, when I have to close and lock the door for the last time ..."
Gowen, who has been a member of Enterprise Fire Company since he was 16 years old, most recently serving in the role of president, is sad about leaving that part of his life behind too.
"I just feel like I'm leaving them in a lurch with the building," Gowen said of the long-awaited firehouse expansion, a project he oversaw since its beginning two years ago.
Fire Chief Keith Gordon, who has served the fire company for nearly 40 years, said he's sad to see Gowen go.
"Chris and I go back, way back when we were young," Gordon said. "We'll definitely miss him. He's a good guy."
The almost non-stop trail of A Dog's Life customers pouring in on a recent afternoon shared the same sadness. As his human customers sought help in fitting a harness, a dog coat, or picking out treats, they all seemed to express the same sentiment: Where will they shop once he closes?
"I'm not happy about it," said Hatboro resident and long-time customer Tracy Coal, who started shopping at Gowen's store when it opened in March 2008. "I don't like going to the chains."
And Gowen, who offers each pooch a doggy treat and some petting, views his business as a true mom and pop store. More than 1,000 customer photos are taped to practically every square inch of the walls. Gowen, quite easily, points out his first four-legged customer, the trio of cats he rescued and made available in the store and other fond memories.
"We're not in here to make a living," he said. "A lot of retailers ... look at it as dollar bills. I look it as giving their pets a much better life."
Gowen said his mother, who worked in retail for many years, inspired him to take on jobs in stores and eventually to own one.
"It's always been in the back of my mind to find something in Hatboro," Gowen said. "The pets - that's a slam dunk. I've had pets all my life and no kids. The pets became our kids."
Without a surrogate parent to pick up the leash and lead the regular customers and 3,000 folks on the mailing list for A Dog's Life, Gowen said he'll likely take whatever inventory is left after Jan. 31, put it in storage and sell it on ebay.
As for a new store, Gowen said that won't be for a while.
"It'll be a couple years. I don't know the area," Gowen said of his new digs in Elkton, Md. "I don't know anybody."
Whether he would return to Hatboro "all depends on the labor market," he said.
"At least I have something up here," Gowen said. "I always had my roots stuck here and my heart in town."