BY GAYLE GOODMAN | Phil Klein, co-owner of Whiskers Holistic Petcare, died in his sleep at his Queens home on Nov. 24. He was 81.
Since the pandemic, Phil had not been physically present in the store, at 235 E. Ninth St., because eight years prior he suffered a massive heart attack, making him very high risk should he get COVID. Of course, he missed going into the store, said Randy Klein, his wife and partner of 42 years.
“He would go in every day with gusto,” she said. “Never angry or with frustration.”
Phil and Randy Klein are a New York story, if ever there was one. They met 43 years ago at a bus stop in front of the New York Public Library, they were both going to the same stop at 34th Street to Penn Station — one to Flushing and the other to Long Island. That became a ride of love, and they married a year later in 1982.
You could say that fateful meeting started them off on the same road into a shared future that led to Whiskers Holistic Petcare. The store was born from their commitment to trying to save their own dog from cancer and their frustration and anger with traditional recommendations and medicine.
Through Randy and Phil, Whiskers Holistic Petcare grew to become a recognized pioneer in alternative petcare and a delightful mecca for pet owners in the East Village, Astoria (where they also have a location), throughout New York and around the world online.
Thanks to the knowledge Phil would share on how to care for dogs and cats and pretty much any other pet you might have, Whiskers was a continual education for customers. Phil made Whiskers a place intensely fun to visit, both for animals and humans, in his embrace of East Village bohemia for pet lovers and their pets, and for the endless unique products to discover.
Going to Whiskers was not just an errand on a list.
Phil and Randy didn’t expect the business to become as established as it is, or even as big. But from meeting on a bus so many years ago, and sharing a love of animals and exploration, Whiskers grew into something that is much more than a “mom and pop” shop.
Phil’s motivation behind the place was education.
“His whole goal was to help people” Randy said, “because when our dog got sick, there was no one to go to, and he didn’t want people to have that experience.”
Whether in the store, where Phil held court on a stool in the corner, or by phone, you could talk to him about any problem your pet was having, and he would direct you on which steps to take. It’s not that he was a veterinarian or claimed to be one. But his knowledge of both the traditional and alternative petcare worlds, his interaction with many veterinarians, and his own continual learning through daily exposure to innovative products, trends, books and concepts in alternative petcare, all made him a top consultant to turn to.
His priority, Randy explained, “Was that everyone’s pet be treated by their caretaker in the most unemotional way, so right choices could be made with a sense of clarity.
“Phil didn’t sugarcoat anything,” she continued. “He was honest and tough. Some people couldn’t handle his style. But if you sat with Phil, you would get the honest truth and the courage to do the right things for your pet. He would say, ‘You’ll know when it’s right for your pet and for you.’”
Randy and Phil created Whiskers from doing their own research into pet foods, nontraditional solutions in petcare and finding alternative vets, such as the great Dr. Martin Goldstein, author of “The Nature of Animal Healing” and founder of Dr. Marty Petfood, who also became a great friend through the years.
Randy and Phil introduced what were then revolutionary and pioneering concepts in petcare in the 1980s, working with a close group of vendors, rescue groups and animal care professionals. They initially worked together in another business — word processing — for 13 years. However, having a sick pet and doing the work to try to help her led them to a total change in the career they wanted to be in.
In 1988, Phil found and bought a tiny space at the current site of the East Village Whiskers that eventually grew into what it is now. The storefront was formerly comprised of two retail stores and a restaurant. The couple discovered new products from “small-batch vendors” who were also searching for better petcare methods based on what the animals’ needs would be in their natural habitat and environment.
Whiskers’ concepts became mainstream over the years, with a boom in petcare manufacturers changing their ingredients and products to cater to a more educated public.
But nothing can duplicate the experience of sitting with Phil, the Whiskers Holistic Petcare store and the people behind it. Several protégés have been mentored directly by Phil for many years, including Joseph Rahey, Randy Klein herself and others who have worked with Whiskers on a long-term basis. They share information on caring for pets with the same commitment and interest in animal health that Phil did. Phil’s legacy will go on through them.
Phil was also a Vietnam War veteran, played the drums and loved to ride his motorcycle any chance he got.
Now is a time to remember. If you have memories and tributes of Phil Klein that you would like to share, you are invited to share them here or send e-mails to email@example.com.
“Phil would tell people with very sick animals, ‘You want them to be ‘happy, happy, gone,'” Randy recalled. “That was how he felt about his own pets and that was how he felt about life, in general. You don’t want them to linger or make others see them suffer. You’ll know when it’s right for the pet and for you.”
The Whiskers family offers condolences to Randy. May his memory be a blessing.
Survivors include Randy Klein, his wife of 42 years and co-founder of Whiskers Holistic Petcare; his cousin, Betty Edel; and his “brother from another mother,” his closest friend, Richie Armento.
“Happy, happy, gone.”