By SHELDON BERMONT / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Jungle Vibes, Wayne Morgenthaler’s anti-corporate toy store and children’s mecca, is closing for good on Sunday, Feb. 12.
Morgenthaler, a former building contractor, political activist, interior designer and Renaissance man, opened his store in 1994. Now 63, he is selling off the last of his inventory and display cases, preparing to move on to what he refers to as “the next chapter” as a permaculture farmer.
In the weeks before he locks the door, families have been bringing warm wishes to him and his partner, Connie Madden. Signed greeting cards are presented. Hugs and memories are shared. Some of the children have grown up as Jungle Vibes patrons and fans.
Morgenthaler points to the retail industry’s slow 10-year decline as the root of Jungle Vibes’ demise, and the collateral damage caused by the dot.com collapse. He estimates that his customers have lost 30-40 percent of their incomes in recent years, as Jungle Vibes lost an equivalent amount of business.
His old time toy store specialized in items that made children think and that were made from largely natural materials, not the plastic-only items offerd at the big-box alternative. Inventory included global music CDs, Legos, thumb pianos and hand drums from Africa and South America, magic tricks and candy.
In a last-ditch effort to increase store traffic and bottom-line numbers, Morgenthaler pumped $50,000 of investment capital into building a small streetside coffee and ice-cream café. But, he says, it was “too little too late.”
“The fact is that for the past 30 years, big-box-style shopping centers have been built at three times the population growth,” he said, “spelling death for the classic Ma and Pa business model.”
Originally from Fullerton, Morgenthaler arrived in Petaluma in 1990 after a decade as a building contractor in Long Beach, choosing Petaluma after careful research.
“I literally went shopping for the right place to live in northern California, somewhere that had a good sense of community,” he said. “I found Sonoma County and Petaluma to be exactly what I was looking for.”
Newly settled, Morgenthaler got involved with a group called the Petaluma Progressives. While protesting against the first Iraq invasion, he struck up a friendship with a like-minded participant named Linda Hamm.
They eventually hatched an idea to open a retail co-op, combining a group of shop-keepers to present a variety of Earth-friendly, forward-thinking products and concepts. He wanted to start an alternative book store; Linda planned to present education methods based on the Montessori precepts.
In 1994 they rented the space that is now the basement of Thai-Issan on the corner of Washington and Petaluma Blvd. and opened “Green Village.”
Morgenthaler’s inventory soon expanded from books to rocks and geodes, and then puppets and ethnic toys from Guatemala and India. The global items inspired a new name, “Jungle Vibes,” a store that valued the world’s diversity and brought some of that to young families.
“I had never believed in ‘consumerism,’ but I saw that having a shop with an open-door policy could put me in touch with the community and allow me to push forward ideas concerning local issues,” he said. “Plus, I never thought it was necessary to separate my politics from my business and wasn’t afraid to intimidate or put off potential customers in the process.”
In 1997, Morgenthaler and Madden moved the store to the southwest corner of Washington and Kentucky, occupying the old Herold building. They continued to expand on the exotic jungle/multi-cultural theme and gained the attention of a youth-based clientele.
They moved again in 2005, to 136 Petaluma Blvd. North, in the process growing the store from 1,400 sq. ft. to 4,000 sq. ft. The strength of that move increased gross sales by 30 to 40% without much expenditure, Morgenthaler said.
He added novel in-store events such as Kids Open Mic and Family Fun Day and regularly hosted magicians, jugglers and belly dancers. And he never missed an opportunity to walk on stilts, don a purple fright wig or ride around the store on one vehicle or another.
“It’s sad,” he said, “not just for me — I planned to grow old here — but for the kids who have come to look at the store as their own.”
So what’s next? Morgenthaler and Madden are in the process of converting 2½ acres on Skillman Lane into a fully functional, co-op farm. They plan to develop what Morgenthaler calls a “food forest,” selling fruits, vegetables and eggs to 20 or 30 families involved in a community-supported agricultural process.
They have named the spread Oasis Community Farm and, Morgenthaler is quick to say, they will keep nurturing and supporting Petaluma’s youth there by staging regular events.