It’s likely no surprise to locals that Wild Rumpus has received a national award for best children’s bookstore, with its child-size doorway, wandering chickens, bathroom aquarium and friendly cats.
But staff put extra work into the nomination this year, and co-founder Collette Morgan said the award couldn’t come at a better time.
Co-founder Tom Braun was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago. He’s learning to live with symptoms he watched his father endure. Whenever Braun is feeling dark about the challenges, he said he heads down to the shop. (He lives upstairs.) Braun chats with customers and hands out his business card, each of which includes a 10 percent discount.
“Just to feel those good vibrations and hear the happiness,” he said.
The booksellers traveled to Chicago May 9 to accept the Women’s National Book Association award for best children’s bookstore.
“From the onset of this whole adventure, it’s just been a breathtaking, amazing experience for all of us,” Braun said.
The bookstore didn’t necessarily feel like a sure bet when it opened in 1992. Morgan bought inventory from her employer Odegard Books, which folded during the boom in large bookstores like Barnes & Noble. At the time, she figured she’d either open a store or “have the world’s largest garage sale of books.”
As major bookstores flourished, Morgan remembers people questioning why they wanted to open another one.
“We just didn’t care,” she said. “We’d make it something superstores can’t really emulate. … I was a voracious reader. This was my dream.”
They thought hard about the bookstore design, even interviewing the architect behind the Lake Harriet Bandshell. Instead they hired the creator of a backyard tree house they adored — the kids could climb to the tree house from their bedroom window.
“That’s the kind of mind we want to be working with,” Morgan said.
The former Masonic lodge at 2720 W. 43rd St. previously operated as a yarn shop and Tony’s Super Hair.
Design inspiration came from the book “The Salamander Room” by Ann Mazer, in which a boy’s bedroom gradually transforms into the outdoors. As customers move through the store, the ceiling appears to crack apart to reveal the sky. They built a “haunted shed” to shelve the scary books, making a home for rats visible underfoot.
The rats join a wide range of animals, including chinchillas that occasionally run around in exercise balls, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, a hairy-looking black chicken called a Bantam Japanese Silky. The Manx cats are a breed that originated on the Isle of Man between Ireland and the UK; their naturally stubby tails are the result of a genetic mutation over time.
“I don’t think life is worth living without having animals around,” Morgan said.
After an early run-in with Animal Control, a city councilmember suggested obtaining a pet store license to keep animals like ferrets and hedgehogs.
The animals at Wild Rumpus are always adopted from infancy.
“This is their world. That’s why they are so acclimated,” Morgan said.
The critters roam overnight in the store. Clerks arrive in the morning to find a cat has stolen the mouse finger puppet — “without paying for it,” Braun joked.
One morning, a ferret was still unaccounted for at the start of business.
“Halfway through the day, one of the upstairs clients said, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but there is a ferret riding the elevator,’” Morgan said.
The incident explains the sign asking visitors not to allow the ferret to ride the elevator.
“We have many odd signs,” Braun said.
A potbelly pig named Norman (he settled his head on kids’ laps while they read, and surprised shoppers with a cold nose to the back of the leg) had to move out after engaging in litter box wars with the cats. He moved in with the owner of Eydie’s quilt shop in Linden Hills, and grew so large his owner needed to duct tape shut the refrigerator.
Aside from the animals, Wild Rumpus credits its staying power to a unique managerial style. They offer profit-sharing for qualifying employees, which helps generate creative ideas to bring in business or keep down expenses.
The Tail Time story hour runs every Monday at 10:30 a.m. Upcoming author events include Superhero Day at 1 p.m. May 21, in which costumed kids receive prizes and can meet Matt Forbeck, author of “Marvel’s Captain America: The Ultimate Guide to the First Avenger.”
Outside the shop, both co-founders are busy with side projects.
Morgan is editing a book of short stories for young readers called “Sky Blue Water,” slated to be published in the fall.
Braun has a background in writing. As he practices exercises that aid memory loss and learns to navigate overwhelming grocery stores, he’s documenting the experience.
“I’m trying to write something about the condition,” he said. “…I try to keep plugging away at it, day by day.”
And he’s spending time in the bookstore he built.
“My occupation in life is to get people to laugh,” he said.