Pet guru specializes in snakes, smiles and open doors
Name: Tim Emerson
Contribution: Created a friendly environment for young people to learn about animals.
Quote: “I said, no matter what, if kids come in they can hold every snake, every bird, any animal in a pen.”
For many animal lovers in Lawrence, Pet World is a whole lot more than a place to buy fish food.
To some, it’s the best place to go to find a rare breed of python. For others, especially kids, it’s a neighborhood zoo and later, a first job. For three dozen employees and more than 100 volunteers, it’s a unique community of people who love sharing animals with others.
Behind it all is Tim Emerson, who bought the store at 711 W. 23rd St. more the 25 years ago and has run it ever since with his wife, Sherry. And although Emerson tends to avoid public attention and says his favorite part of the workday is before the store opens in the morning, when he is alone with the animals, he has somehow become a local figure, recognized wherever he goes.
“He’s like the Pied Piper,” said Sherry. “It’s crazy. Customers line up to talk to him. They don’t want to talk to anyone else; it has to be Tim.”
Emerson’s store has an emphatic open door policy, which is one reason why so many people have come to know him and his staff. It comes from his own experience as a youth, he said. Emerson remembers, as a teenager in Topeka, a pet store with a sign on the door prohibiting anyone under the age of 16 from entering without their parents. As a 21-year-old first-time business owner in Lawrence in 1988, he had a different vision for Pet World.
“I said, no matter what, if kids come in they can hold every snake, every bird, any animal in a pen,” he said. “We don’t have corporate policies; the only policy is do what’s right and make people happy. It seems to work.”
Indeed, Pet World takes a unique approach to the public, and people who come in just to look at fish often wind up working at the store for years. One teenage employee, caring for fish on a Thursday afternoon, called it “a dream job, almost.”
When other business owners in the area chased away teenagers who were skateboarding in the parking lot, Pet World invited them in and put them to work as volunteers along with other young visitors. The Emersons gave them official volunteer badges, trained them and offered them a graduated system of promotion that led many to become trusted employees through high school and college.
“They take it seriously,” Sherry said. And the Emersons agree they couldn’t run the store the way they do without the help of their volunteers. As Emerson put it, “There’s no way you could pay someone to hold a hamster for an hour and make sure it’s tame.”
And in turn, the volunteers and employees become public figures, recognized all over, from Massachusetts Street to the United Kingdom. One staffer was on a trip to Scotland when someone stepped out of a crowd to get her attention, Sherry said. “They screamed: ‘You sold me my fish! You’re from Pet World!'”
Emerson has always said he would rather be behind the scenes than out with the public but he has a way of being known around town anyway. Many of the young people visiting Pet World know Emerson either as a youth sports coach or were teammates of his and Sherry’s own kids in basketball, volleyball, softball or baseball. And for years, elementary school kids in Lawrence have been visited by traveling Pet World animals shows, featuring reptiles, aquatic creatures and others. In the beginning, Emerson made those trips himself, but over time staffers have taken over that role. He sometimes still visits Broken Arrow where his kids attended when they were younger.
Perhaps the most visible example of the kind of enthusiasm Emerson inspires in the Pet World community is his Halloween extravaganza. Each year at the Emerson home, he, Sherry and dozens of their staffers and friends put on an elaborate pageant of horror for trick-or-treaters. Behind a cobweb-infested fence, visitors find zombies, werewolves, victims of the guillotine, skeletons, giant rats and half-buried coffins.
“He’s a lunatic” Sherry said. What started as a lark one Halloween more than a decade ago became a tradition that gets more elaborate as time passes. “It is nuts. He just keeps on doing it because the kids expect it. He’s unstoppable.”
Someday, the Emersons will turn the store over to someone else, they say. But it would have to be the right kind of person, someone who would continue the legacy of Emerson and Pet World. “We just feel like we’re temporarily hosting this thing, this entity,” Sherry said. “It’s the concept that Tim brought.”