story by Helen Wheatley
Under the last tab of children’s bookstore The Reading Reptile’s website is a link to an old blog, entitled A. Bitterman. Dated May 2007, this blog post begins by explaining to the reader that he/she is in the author’s mind, a figment of the blogger’s imagination. Pete Cowdin, A. Bitterman, owner of the Reading Reptile and now the Rabbit Hole, details in vivid language his frustration with the world of publishing, the consumer and he himself as a bookseller. Cowdin was discouraged by the reception of the children’s book back in 2007, but, along with wife Debbie Pettid, has ventured to change it. With large doses of creativity and paper mache, the two are cashing in 27 “weird and wonderful” years at the Reading Reptile for a new escapade down the Rabbit Hole.
The Rabbit Hole, located in the Crossroads, dubs itself as the world’s first “explorastorium.” It will eventually include immersive storybook galleries where guests can “walk, climb and crawl” through physical recreations of children’s books, along with a theater, a printing press and book bindery, a library, archive, writing lab and bookstore, according to Pettid. The first immersive gallery grand opening is set for April 9; the rest of the programming and complete Rabbit Hole vision are still to come.
Currently, the Rabbit Hole office headquarters and immersive galleries are split up, but eventually the team hopes to secure its own building to house the entire vision. The year ahead is a chance for the explorastorium to “show [its] muscles.” The Rabbit Hole will be many things for the community of Kansas City, but Pettid is focused on creating an experience that will inspire the audience itself.
“When people come here, we want them to have a whole array of emotions,” Pettid said. “We want people to say, ‘Wow, they are sick. They paper mache’ed all of this?’ We want people to go home and think, ‘I’m going to make a fort,’ or, ‘I’m going to do this in my kid’s room,’ or, ‘I’m going to read this book.’”
This objective is part of a very large, risk-taking operation. Pettid says one of her main frustrations comes from the fact that the Rabbit Hole is here to provide unique, unmeasurable experiences. If anything, the Rabbit Hole has been original in its pursuits– through unconventional funding and work ethic that couldn’t be achieved without the community’s support.
“Creating that excitement and community and that desire for something new will overcome this imbedded idea that the only way you can get something done is to find 10 people with a million dollars,” Pettid said. “You can find something and drive it and support it with a million people with ten dollars.”
photos by Violet Cowdin
Not only are Pettid and Cowdin creating the Rabbit Hole for the community, but with the community. In the past five weeks, the nonprofit has attracted 130 volunteers to bring the project to fruition. This volunteer base cultivates a sense of pride in the audience, and allows a vast network of people to contribute their different assets to the same project.
“Lots of times when things are created for the community, they’ll see it at the end,” Pettid said. “And this is an opportunity for people to see it all the way through. We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re never gonna be done.”
While the Rabbit Hole’s core creative team is a “serendipitous meeting” of about five people, the spectrum of those who work with the Rabbit Hole on a regular basis includes 20-80 year olds, about 80% of whom are women. Many of these people are new acquaintances, but a huge portion of them have also followed from the days of the Reading Reptile.
“The thing [The Reading Reptile] can bring to this is all those relationships with publishers and authors and illustrators that money can’t buy,” Pettid said. “So without the Reptile there would be no Rabbit Hole.”
For St. Teresa’s students, the Reading Reptile has been an institution and beacon of childhood memories. Junior Emma Swinney grew up with the Cowdin family and has been visiting the Reading Reptile for 12 years. Swinney had Reading Reptile birthday parties, joined the book clubs and attended the events when she wasn’t in the basement playing dress up or drawing all over the walls upstairs.
“Watching the Reptile close has been bittersweet,” Swinney said. “But I am so happy that children will have the opportunity to create memories at a place like the Rabbit Hole.”
For 27 years, Pettid and Cowdin have pruned their skills and sailed the rocky seas of children’s bookselling, you could almost say in preparation for the Rabbit Hole. But Pettid doesn’t believe you can separate a long term goal from a recently developed idea. We’re all indirectly preparing for these moments, she says.
“It’s not often in your life that you get to pursue something you really want,” Pettid said. “And I think that’s something that’s really special.”
And so, as one idea springs up out of the fresh dirt, a pair of passionate artist-booksellers appear with a watering can and shears. The world will watch as the Reading Reptile packs up its things and moves away to a more colorful world. For where one story ends, another begins.