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Apart From the Herd : With 450 Objets d’Moose, an Orange Museum Pays Tribute to Loyal Customers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s a familiar story: Man makes good, then erects a lasting memorial to his success, something to share with the public. It scarcely matters whether the actions were motivated by philanthropic virtue or ego. What does matter is that there are now enriching institutions that can be enjoyed and embraced for generations to come.

Sing the names loudly: the Getty, the Norton Simon, the Moose Museum.

Perhaps you haven’t heard of the last one yet, since it’s not on a parade route or famous beach. Nor has it garnered attention for its collections of photography or German Expressionist painting. But it is on Tustin Avenue, and soon you’ll be able to spot it by the illuminated topiary moose they’re putting out front.

Like any curator, Mike Bonk is faced with major issues. Like, just what is the plural of moose?

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“I take the approach of the zoo curator in the joke,” he said, continuing, “The curator calls up to order animals and goes, ‘I need two moose, no, two meese , no, make that two mooses . . . . Look, just send me a moose, and then send me another one.’ ”

If you really need to know, Webster’s lists the plural as moose . A greater source of perplexity should be the fact that this is the second fixated Bonk we’ve talked with in the past month. The first was Edie Bonk, whose Bozo collection is part of the Fullerton Museum Center’s “Gotta Have It!” exhibit on collectors. Edie’s husband, Mike Bonk, collects children’s books.

And now comes another Mike Bonk who also is somewhat loopy, if having 450 moose items qualifies one as such.

“It must be a genetic malfunction,” suggests the latest Bonk. They’re unrelated, though the moose Bonk once bumped into the Bozo Bonk married to the book Bonk at the Auto Club. If there are other Bonks out there with strange hobbies, please keep it to yourself.

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The Moose Museum occupies a balcony of Bonk’s Mainly Seconds store in Orange, the newest of a chain of three county stores he owns. Moose tracks painted on the wall lead shoppers upstairs.

As visitors climb, painted plaques explain the story: how, when Bonk opened his first store in 1982 his wife, Ann--who had nicknamed him Moose for no discernible reason--rallied friends and workers to buy him an artificial moose head made of plaid and corduroy. The history concludes: “I’ve chosen to share this private collection with those individuals most instrumental in my success--my customers, whose loyalty and support not only paid the bills, but helped me realize a dream.”

Plus, the stuff was really getting underfoot in Bonk’s office. That’s where it previously resided, that corduroy moose head, bearing the legend “The Moose Is Loose,” and the rest. Most are fanciful craft items. There is not a real stuffed moose head in the lot.

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“I was offered one, and I turned it down. I’m not big on hunting or putting anything that was alive into the collection,” he said.

Instead, there are several pairs of moose slippers, moose bird feeders, a moose thermometer, inflatable moose, musical moose, a moose cribbage board, a furry moose hot water bottle, origami moose. . . . You get the moose picture.

“If coin collectors are numismatists, I’m a numoosematist,” Bonk maintains.

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Once he got his first moose, friends and business acquaintances kept them coming in. “And when my wife and I were vacationing and she wanted to go shopping, now I had something to shop for too.”

Eventually he hopes to have a placard with each item, giving the story of where it’s from or who gave it to him. For example, one moose painted on tile came from one of Bonk’s suppliers, “who took a picture of a moose to his tile supplier in the Philippines to have them make me one, and they were all laughing because they’d never seen a moose before,” Bonk said.

Many were handmade by his wife or by friends. One or two of the items made by friends look more like frogs than moose, but he’s included them in the collection out of loyalty.

There are other hazards to moose collecting.

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“I have to be careful not to let the collection be infiltrated by reindeer,” Bonk said. “The difficult thing is, this time of year many people give you reindeer, because they look a lot like moose.” The difference, he says, is “a moose has nostrils like a horse and a reindeer has the one single nose, like Rudolph.”

Surprisingly, there are very few Bullwinkles in the collection. Bonk, who once earned his keep as a cartoonist, is a big fan of the Jay Ward creation, “but Bullwinkles are just too easy to collect. Now that the museum is open, it’s inevitable that I’m going to be getting mooses from customers, and many of them will be Bullwinkles, so he’ll get the place he deserves.”

Bonk says that despite the stores’ name--Mainly Seconds--they carry first-quality merchandise, though he often judiciously buys it discontinued or at auction. His stock ranges from a glut of holiday items to picture frames to cigarettes to potted plants. His poinsettias may be an inch shorter than other vendors’ or have one fewer flower, but he also sells them for $1 to $4 less than others, he said, adding that he goes through 70,000 of them in three weeks.

When Bonk opened in a 3,500-square-foot location in 1982, the moose head was hung in a restroom, because that was his office after he tore out the toilet and sink. Every year since then has been a growth year. Bonk said, “We’re protected in both a bad and good economy, because people are always bargain hunting, always looking for a deal.” He has 50 full-time employees. Some have been with him from the beginning and are now among his best friends.

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The 15,000-square-foot Orange store, opened in November, is packed with merchandise, and he doubtlessly could have found a more lucrative use for the space occupied by the no-admission Moose Museum. Instead, he’s looking to knock out a wall and expand it into a warehouse area.

A sign in the museum details plans for expansion, including a library, a fine-art gallery, an international wall “of mooses from around the world” and a children’s wing. Bonk hopes schools will take children there on field trips.

And what will school kids learn, looking at his collection of moose slippers and such, other than that Bonk is bonkers?

He was still searching for an answer when two customers seeing the museum for the first time came to his aid. “Why, it would teach them to collect something. This is charming,” said one woman. “They’d learn the value of saving,” suggested the other.

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Bonk thinks the museum will be of greater educational value once they have the library in place. “My wife and I are also thinking of putting in a collection box and giving the money to wildlife organizations. So it has a potential to grow in function as well as size,” Bonk said.

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There may be limits on just how many fascinating things there are to know about moose, though Bonk likes to point out that they’re clumsy when they charge and can stand nine feet tall. At weights up to 1,800 pounds, a full-grown moose can even outweigh the Three Tenors. “You’re in trouble if your car runs into one,” he said, meaning the moose.

The most curious aspect of this tale is that, at 42 years of age, Bonk has never seen a real living moose and is in no particular rush to. He prefers to think about what his artificial moose stand for: the employees, business associates and friends who have shared his shaggy whim with him.

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And therein perhaps lies the real value that kids might derive from his museum: that despite recent trends, businesses can have room for fun and friendship, and that the true history of a venture might be better charted with hoof prints than with a graph.


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