Small-business milestone

Local dog groomer looks back on 50 years in the biz

Carol Hill stands in front of a mural she painted outside of the dog-grooming salon she customized decades ago.

Carol Hill stands in front of a mural she painted outside of the dog-grooming salon she customized decades ago.

Photo By Stacey kennelly

Chico has never had a zoo, but Carol Hill, a former pet-shop owner and founder of a popular dog-grooming salon, used to be a zookeeper of sorts.

The business she started, which is now known as Carol’s Dog Grooming (973 East Ave), is celebrating 50 years of serving local pet lovers. It was a busy half-century for Hill, who during certain years juggled an exotic pet shop, a dog-obedience school and grooming salon and, eventually, a dog-grooming school, too.

Hill sold her grooming salon to veteran employee Stephanie Wharton in 2008, and business is still booming. She visits occasionally to remember the years she spent there, during a time when “women just didn’t go into business,” she said, and it was legal to own exotic animals.

“This was my life,” said the retiree, as she sat on a bench overlooking the parking lot where she ran the obedience school outside her shop. “People ask you who you are, and this was me. This is what I spent my life doing.”

Hill started her career in the pet industry in January 1961, when she purchased Miller’s Pet Shop on Broadway Street in downtown Chico. She had been a longtime customer and breeder of tropical fish, and had a background in cat breeding and dog showing, when she had an opportunity to purchase the shop.

Her love of animals, combined with her marketing experience (she worked previously as an advertising consultant for JC Penney) and no-nonsense attitude, immediately benefited her business.

However, she found out the building was being demolished a year later.

“I was really upset at the time, but it really was a better thing,” Hill said.

She relocated to The Esplanade for a year, until a friend offered to customize a building for her at 955 East Ave. (now Chico Dental Group) complete with a back room and the electricity she needed to power her aquariums. She quickly became known for her exotic animals—most of which are now illegal—including an anteater, monkeys, a matamata turtle and large reptiles.

The extra space also allowed her to open Carol’s Dog Grooming and a canine obedience school.

During the “pet shop years,” as she calls them, Hill groomed movie star Richard Burton’s one-eyed Pekingese and Elizabeth Taylor’s two Shih Tzus while Burton was filming The Klansman in the Oroville area and the couple were living in a house off The Skyway in 1974.

“It was the talk of the town,” Hill said with a chuckle. “But they didn’t get special treatment. To me, they’re not different than anyone else making a living. They just made a lot more than the rest of us.”

Eventually, the seven-days-a-week nature of the pet shop burned her out.

“It’s not easy cleaning up crap,” she said, chuckling. “You have to like 100 percent of the whole thing.”

She closed the shop in 1979 and moved to the current location on East Avenue, where she continued to run her obedience school and dog-grooming salon. She opened Cal-A-Hi Dog Grooming School in 1985, which required students to work nine hours a day for three months, and included homework and grooming assignments, just like a cosmetology school.

Today, many local dog groomers are Hill’s former students, including Stacey Goulart, who graduated in 2004 and owns Bow Wow Doggie Day Spa (313 Walnut St.).

Hill always emphasized customer service, Goulart said.

“She taught us that we weren’t just working with the dogs, and that it was important to have a relationship with the client,” Goulart said. “It was important for her that the image of dog-grooming change, where groomers get paid what they’re worth.”

Goulart said Hill was a tough teacher who required students—some of whom did not graduate—to learn to groom dogs to show-quality standards.

Hill attributes her successes to her father and step-father, both of whom encouraged her to be confident.

“I was always told growing up, if you want to do something bad enough, you can do it,” said Hill, who is spending her retirement making art quilts and hanging out with Ali, her 13-year-old Yorkie. “So I did.”