(picture from yelp.com)
When I was a child my parents took my older brother and I to the Reading Reptile in Kansas City, Missouri for story hours. The Reading Reptile was an out of place children's bookstore located in Westport, an area largely geared to college students and young professionals. Sandwiched between a vintage t-shirt store and a bar, it's brightly lit, cheerful windows seemed like they belonged to another world.
In many ways, walking into the Reptile felt like walking into another world. The cluttered store was filled with paper mache sculptures of characters from books. Every inch of the store was brightly painted and every corner seemed to hold some small surprise. Above all the colorful chaos an iguana named Iggy surveyed the store. His habitat of tree branches was suspended from the ceiling over the cash register.
The most striking thing about the store though was the way it felt. Entering the Reading Reptile felt less like walking into a store and more like walking into someone's living room. The owner Debbie's children wandered the aisles in diapers, pulling books off the shelves. Birthday parties and story hours were packed with kids who Debbie always seemed to know by name. I once asked to interview her for a class project when I was twelve and she sat with me for an hour, answering every question, never making me feel as though she had something more important to do. The magic of the Reading Reptile wasn't just in the decorations it was in it's spirit. It was a place where kids were free to be kids, to run up and down aisles, to knock things over and laugh or shout too loud. The Reptile let kids love books in the only way kids know how to love things: roughly, over-enthusiastically, innocently.
I have wandered the aisles of many independent bookstores over the years, from City Lights in San Francisco to the Tattered Cover in Denver, and I have fallen for all of them, but the Reading Reptile was my first love. This place helped me discover the joy of books. It taught me to cherish and support the small and unique places in this world. It even helped me learn to like slimy reptiles named Iggy.
(picture from Reading Reptile facebook page)
My family moved away from Kansas City when I was 13, but I had the opportunity to return to the city last year for a work conference. The final morning of my stay I made the trek by bus to the new home of the Reading Reptile. They have since moved to the more family friendly area of Brookside. Their new home is in a brick strip mall filled with clothing boutiques and stationary suppliers. I walked through the front door and found myself entering the store through the mouth of a giant dragon. The new space was larger and just as brightly colored. Paper mache statues still filled all available space and I saw Debbie, looking a little greyer, checking in with a group of children who were finger painting in the store's activity area.
I wandered the aisles for a few minutes, picking up books and paging through them without really reading. Everything about the store still looked the same, but it felt different somehow. I visited the Reptile that day out of nostalgia. I returned to it the way anyone returns to a first love, searching for the same sweetness and joy they once found there. I wasn't surprised to discover that my memory of the place was sweeter than the reality, but I was saddened that I could no longer find the same sense of enchantment in those aisles.
I had a plane to catch, a home to get back to, work that was waiting for me. I couldn't let myself get lost in these aisles and wait for my parents to find me. There were places I needed to be, things I needed to attend to and no room in my mundane life for childish flights of fancy. I felt as though I was Susan from the Chronicles of Narnia, too old and too burdened by adulthood to be able to access the magic locked away in this dusty old wardrobe.
The magic was still there though. I could see it on the faces of the children that raced by me and in the consistency of Debbie's presence as she showed a child a book she thought they'd like or checked in with frazzled parents. The Reading Reptile has always been a place for the very young. It captures the hearts of children and opens them up to a world of wonder; a world that is sure to continue for many generations to come.
The Reading Reptile
328 W. 63rd St
Kansas City, MO 64113
(picture from Reading Reptile facebook page)