Kansas City booksellers Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid, who have owned The Reading Reptile for more than 25 years, intend to close the bookstore Pettid founded in 1988 by the end of March so that they can develop “the world’s first explorastorium,” a project that they have been conceptualizing for the past year. The proposed museum, inspired by Meow Wolf, an immersive experiences company in Santa Fe and St. Louis’s City Museum, is called The Rabbit Hole in homage to Alice in Wonderland. It will allow visitors to physically immerse themselves in the narratives of beloved children’s books through interactive exhibits and galleries. There will also be regularly scheduled presentations and workshops led by touring authors and illustrators to complement the full-scale 3-D installations, which will change every three or four months.
“This is a big, big project,” Cowdin told PW. “We can’t manage both of them.” The Reading Reptile, which won a Pannell Award for excellence in children’s bookselling in 2005, is a Kansas City literary icon, famed for its collection of papier-mâché sculptures created by Pettid and for irreverent programming that appeals as much to adults as it does to children.
The mission of The Rabbit Hole, which is being set up as a nonprofit, is to “create new readers on an unprecedented scale” in a world where “only around 50% of parents read aloud to their kids on a regular basis.”
“It’s time to invite readers of all ages and all abilities to engage with the book and long-form narrative in playful, artistic new ways,” the project’s mission statement declares, promising to “change lives and change the way we think about literacy.” Cowdin said that he expects The Rabbit Hole to officially launch in 2019 – or even earlier, if the necessary funds can be raised.
A prototype of one component of The Rabbit Hole has been installed in a temporary leased space in Kansas City’s Crossroads neighborhood. The prototype is a full-scale, walk-through exhibit bringing to life The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by Jon Agee, who has assisted the Rabbit Hole team in creating it. The grand opening of this Rabbit Hole prototype will be held on April 9.
“We’re collaborative creators,” Cowdin said, “That’s what’s special about The Rabbit Hole. We’re working with the blessings of [children’s book authors and illustrators] and their input. We’re trying to model [the prototype] the way we would in the museum.”
Cowdin, Pettid, and their team are currently in the “quiet phase” of a capital campaign to raise funds to make the vision a reality. The Rabbit Hole has received to date about $400,000 in contributions from Kansas City-area individuals, foundations, and family trusts. An Indiegogo campaign is scheduled to roll out on April 4 to introduce the project to a national audience of potential funders.
The Rabbit Hole is hoping to raise approximately $15 million in four stages over the next two or three years, with $8 million earmarked for exhibit construction and installation, and approximately $3 million designated for building renovations, although a site has not been procured yet. It is estimated that The Rabbit Hole will need to be housed in a 50,000–75,000-square-foot space, with parking available for school buses. There are plans to include an onsite theater, print shop and bindery, library, writing labs, and a bookstore/gift shop.
“We are seeking a former industrial or commercial structure in the greater downtown area,” states The Rabbit Hole fundraising website. Once the fundraising goals have been reached, The Rabbit Hole will become primarily self-sufficient, “through a variety of revenue streams,” including admission fees, programming for schools, and bookstore/gift shop sales, as well as support from national publishers, local companies, and foundations.
“Virtually every major publisher has endorsed the project,” the website notes, including all of the Big Five and “dozens” of others. “The Rabbit Hole will become a criterion in the publishing industry as a spiritual home and relentless advocate for children’s literature.” Its eight-member board of directors includes leaders in Kansas City’s business and philanthropic communities, and Crosby Kemper III, the director of the Kansas City Public Library. Its eight-member national advisory board is a veritable Who’s Who of children’s book authors and illustrators: Jon Scieszka, Kate DiCamillo, Daniel Handler, Linda Sue Park, Brian Selznick, Lisa Campbell Ernst, and Shane Evans, plus Fox Rabbit, “The Rabbit Hole’s resident guide and chief mischief-maker.”
“We’re trying to do a lot of different things,” Cowdin told PW, disclosing that a traveling exhibit is in the planning stages. “It’s a combination of creating, and planning, and raising money. It’s going to be super fun.”
This story has been edited and updated.