Before opening Wild Territory Science & Nature Store, her science and natural history shop at 942 Massachusetts St. in downtown Lawrence, owner Joyce Donham worked as the Oklahoma City Zoo for 11 years, where she was the education curator. It was during her time there that she started the business that would turn into the cool and quirky shop.
“On the weekends and stuff, I started going to flea markets, selling science items and biology – alligator heads and stuff like that,” is how Donham describes the store's early days. Then, when she moved back to Lawrence after time away, she figured she'd either get her Masters or open a store.
“If the hills weren't so bad here, I'd've gone to KU for my Masters,” she says with a grin and a laugh. Wild Territory first opened in 2002, just a block north on the other side of the street, operating out of the back half of a storefront it shared with Prairie Pond Studio. After two years, though, Donham was able to find a storefront of her own, and has been in her current location since 2004.
The store is described on the Wild Territory website as a “unique education store,” which specializes in “providing basic as well as unusual and intriguing natural history and science products for our customers,” but that only scratches the surface of what you can find in Donham's shop. It's a veritable cornucopia of products to tempt kids and kids-at-heart.
A glance in any direction will reveal fossils, mounted insects under glass, microscopes, a Lost In Space action figure, and t-shirts featuring everything from the caffeine molecule to glow-in-the-dark skeletons. It's all tastefully arranged, and pretty amazing, but the counter with insects, fossils, and a dizzying array of animal bones attracts the most traffic. It's no surprise, given Donham's background.
“We emphasize every aspect of science, but biology is really my forte,” the store owner explains, as her degree is in biology education. It's a very tactile kind of store, and Donham loves the fact that her store is a place where kids can see things in person they might have otherwise only viewed online or in books, as well as the fact that they can touch them – which is so much better than a museum.
“It's really great, because we get to introduce [kids] to science,” Donham describes the way mothers and fathers in Lawrence bring their children to Wild Territory. “This town is a very educational community.”
She's quite proud of living in a town that cares so much about science, and the fact that her store is now something of a multi-generational favorite. Having been open for almost 17 years now, some of the customers who came in when they were young, now bring in children of their own to Wild Territory.
“It drops me for a loop,” Donham says. “I heard one lady tell her child, 'This was mommy's favorite store when she was little,' and I was just – 'Holy cow! How old am I?' It does shock you, but it's very nice.”
Located just two doors up from The Toy Store, the science and nature store sees a lot of business during the summer holiday break, as well as at Christmas, but people are in and out of the shop year-round (during our short conversation at the shop's front counter, two entire families come in and make a circuit around the store).
While Wild Territory sells quite a few t-shirts with logos ranging from Star Trek to an Einstein t-shirt that looks like the Aerosmith logo, in terms of store-branded merchandise, Donham says that Wild Territory logo t-shirts are very popular. When she sees someone wearing one, it makes her happy.
“It's like, 'Wow, that's great,'” she says. “It's fantastic – we know that what we're selling is working, and that people enjoy and like it.”
It's not just Lawrencians who buy those shirts, either, continues Donham, because visitors to Wild Territory are the sort who, if they stop there once, will stop by every time they're in town.
“We have a lot of people who come for conferences at KU,” she says, listing off a slew of international visitors to the store: “From Norway, Africa, England, Canada – you name it. Everywhere. They'll come in for a conference, and then buy one and take it back to their university or their museum.”
While some of Dunham's shirts are ordered pre-made from other companies, she gets her Wild Territory logo t-shirts from Blue Collar Press. She describes the positives of working with a local business to get that merchandise as being on the same wavelength.
“I can just call and say, 'Can you change this a little bit?', and get it right down to exactly what I want,” Donham says of her experiences working with Blue Collar Press. “It can be real simple, and it's taken care of, and I get exactly what I want.”
A further example of just how far Blue Collar is willing to go to help a customer started with Donham. When she'd come to pick things up in winter months, the front desk manager would carry out her shirts to her, due to ice on the steep incline to the front door of their current warehouse.
“It was just the nicest thing,” Donham says. “I didn't even ask – they just started doing it for me.”
After taking notice of the trouble Donham had with the large boxes in which her shirts came, Blue Collar started a free Friday delivery for her, and eventually extended the service city-wide to their Lawrence customer base, essentially starting an entire business initiative out of a desire to help just one customer who needed it.
The logo, found on those t-shirts, was designed by a customer, who did it as a favor, freshening up the shop's original sign – which still hangs on Wild Territory's back wall. While that logo was designed by an advertising professional, the current logo was a fan of the store who just wanted to give something back to a place she liked.
“She just came in and said she could make it look nice, and that's the one we're using,” Donham says with no small amount of amazement. “They're so nice! Just lovely people.”
As far as niceness goes, Donham and Wild Territory give back to the community which gives to them, especially to charities which go along with the store's mission of biology and education, like the Lawrence Humane Society, the Special Olympics, or the Jayhawk Audubon Society's annual Kaw Valley Eagles Day every January.
“We give away shirts all the time,” says Donham. “We donate a lot – probably more than I should, but sometimes, it's a worthwhile cause that I support wholeheartedly.”