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Welcome to the Jungle: Bonaminio has Miami roots

By Bonnie Meibers, Senior Staff Writer

With its green facade painted to mimic jungle vines and trees and the turquoise waters of the shallow ponds flanking the door on either side, Jungle Jim's is hard to miss. Life-sized giraffe and elephant statues can be seen taking a water break in the pond through the thick brush and shrubs. Shoppers entering the international grocery store are engulfed by the sounds of lions growling and monkeys howling, welcoming them to the jungle.

What many may not know is that the Jungle Jim behind Jungle Jim's isn't just a character, he is a real person - a father and a Miami alumnus. And his story is just as wild as his name suggests.

Jim Bonaminio, known to most as "Jungle," was practically born a businessman.

"My mother is like Donald Trump and Martha Stewart combined," he said.

Marie Bonaminio, or "Toots," as Jungle calls her, sold Fuller brushes door-to-door. Jungle first learned to be a salesman from Marie, who still works full-time today at 90-years-old. Jungle would go door-to-door pulling his red wagon, a shovel and a rake around his Lorain, Ohio neighborhood.

"I was the only kid at nine years old to have my own business card."

Jungle later played baseball at Lorain Admiral King High School. His coach was Forest "Bud" Middaugh, who went on to coach baseball at Miami University. When Middaugh left Admiral King for Miami, he brought Jungle with him.

"I got slid underneath the door," Jungle said.

The year was 1967, and the Vietnam War was dividing both his generation and the nation. Jungle was the first of his family to attend college, and the businessman admits he felt out of place in academia.

After his first year at Miami, Jungle decided his baseball career did not have a future, and he quit the team. He stayed at Miami for six and a half years, but never graduated.

Although he didn't leave Miami with a degree, Jungle did learn a lot from his time at the university.

His time and motion study course comes in handy on a regular basis, he said. Time and motion study is the evaluation of the efficiency of an operation. For instance, when Jungle sees someone in the store cleaning in one spot and then throwing something away at another, he uses the mindset this course taught him and moves the trashcan.

Miami also brought Jungle his wife, Joani. The two met during her senior year, and, yes, they did kiss under the Upham Arch.

"She's one of the best things that ever happened to me," he said.

Jungle was always busy with one business operation or another. While studying at Miami, he sold produce from a myriad of farmers out of his truck in locations throughout Hamilton and owned other produce stands near Lorain before going to college.

During his years at Miami, the university forbade students from having cars on campus. Jungle's vehicle was essential to his produce stand, however, so to get around this restriction, Jungle would drive his truck into trees behind his house, Ye Old White House, and cover it with brush. It was never found, he said.

If he wasn't running a business off campus, he was starting new business ventures on campus. As a sophomore, Jungle tried to sell French fries and hot chocolate out of his window on the first floor of Brandon Hall. He and his roommate bought a cooker, potatoes and hot chocolate. One night, they stole wood from behind the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house and crafted a makeshift stand to put inside their room. The pair went to bed and woke up the next morning with bugs crawling all over their room.

"That was it," Jungle said. "That was the end of the business."

Unlike that dorm-room failure, Jungle Jim's International Grocery Store has had major success and grown to include two locations in Fairfield and Eastgate.

Both stores are filled with food, beer and wine from all over the world. In the Fairfield store, the Campbell's Soup Boy greets visitors, perched on a swing above various produce. There is an 800-pound block of cheese, fondly called "The Big Cheese," hanging in the cheese department. The award-winning bathrooms are disguised as Rumpke Port-a-lets. A large, fuzzy lion dressed as Elvis sings to shoppers.

"The wildness downstairs carries into the office up here," said Jared Bowers, Jungle Jim's social media and content coordinator.

The store's vast collection grew from customer requests, said Jimmy Bonaminio, Jungle's son. Jungle Jim's started carrying international products for immigrants or locals who had travelled internationally and requested the foods.

Jimmy said his father is very hands-on with the store, designing shelves and collecting items to display. Jungle works every day of the week.

"It's his whole world," Jimmy said.

Jimmy and his brother, Chris, both work with their father. Jimmy is the executive director of the creative department and Chris is the general manager of the store.

In today's world, a college degree is thought to be essential to success in the business world. Jungle disproves this theory, having always relied on his natural business instinct.

"This is how I make all of my business decisions," Jungle said.

Jungle got up from his seat and crossed the room to grab six decks of playing cards, which he laid out on a table in front of him. Each deck is labeled in Sharpie. "Sex," "love and romance," "money" and "family" are a few. He shuffles the cards, cuts the deck and shuffles again. He deals seven onto the table and then explains the method to his madness.

The first step is to pick which end of the line of cards he has just laid down is the "high end." If a good hand is dealt on the end chosen, then a business venture will be profitable. If a poor hand is dealt, Jungle said, he may want to get back to the drawing board.

Jungle points to a perfect, already dealt, hand laying out on the counter behind him.

"I was wondering if I should do a deal with a church," he explains.

Days earlier, he played the game with the owners of the church. After dealing that perfect hand, he decided to let the church build an auditorium on a property he owns.

Much like this card game, Jungle has taken chances in his life and with business. He has made a name for himself as a businessman, a collector of bizarre items and vendor of strange foods. And, through his persistence and hard work, he has definitely earned his name.