A hermit crab peers out of its shell and, having decided the path is clear, scurries across the sand to a small pond of water. Using its claws, the crab begins to scoop water into its mouth. As a handful of onlookers watches in amazement, Hasan Zubair steps forward and makes his sales pitch.
“Crabs do a lot of neat things like that,” he says.
Zubair is the owner of the Hermit Hut, a kiosk at Columbia Mall that sells pet hermit crabs along with just about everything needed to approximate the creatures’ natural environment — including sand and tiny palm trees. Zubair started his business five months ago and says that sales have been better than he had expected.
While hermit crab lovers can find the crustaceans at any pet store, Zubair’s stand at the mall gives his customers a more up-close-and-personal encounter. And if his traffic is any indication, hermit crabs — which Zubair sells in three sizes, with or without a display cage — are of genuine interest. Barbara DuBose, a Columbia College student, recently bought a hermit crab from Zubair for her dorm room.
“I have never seen pet crabs before,” DuBose says. “But it’s something simple, and they are easy to take care of.”
Many of Zubair’s customers are drawn by the crabs’ shells, some of which have been decorated to commemorate certain occasions. The largest crabs — measuring 4 to 5 inches long — sport paintings of American flags. That explains why, according to Zubair, some visitors to the Hermit Hut aren’t exactly sure what they are looking at.
“A lot of people ask me if they are real,” Zubair says. “They ask me if they are battery operated.”
Zubair’s most enthusiastic customers are children. As they pass by his kiosk, he can hear them pleading with their parents for a chance to gawk at the odd creatures. Initially, many parents don’t seem willing to let their children bring a crab home, but Zubair says they are good, low-maintenance pets that can live as long as 15 years.
Zubair moved to Columbia from Texas, where he operated a gift shop that specialized in porcelain and crystal. He was eventually forced to close the store, and he blames its failure on the economic downturn. Zubair’s first business in Columbia was a kiosk in the mall that sold housewares made of bamboo. He finally sold that business because of flat sales.
But even though Zubair feels like he has a commercial success on his hands with the Hermit Hut, he says his new enterprise can only last until the holidays. Zubair buys his crabs from a Florida company called FMR, one of the biggest suppliers in the country. Even in season, keeping a steady supply of the creatures is a challenge, and Zubair has suffered through every small-business person’s nightmare: Plenty of paying customers but not enough inventory to meet the demand.