Remembrance: WonTon, Beloved Bookstore Cat, 2007-2023

Mercurial tuxedo cat oversaw Chop Suey Books and Shelf Life Books.

The first year that Athena Palmer worked at Chop Suey Books, her boss brought in a cake for her birthday. WonTon, the store’s longtime cat, wanted a piece.

“He tapped me on the arm, and when I looked over, he bit my hand and then stole my cake right off my fork,” says Palmer, now one of the two store managers of Chop Suey’s successor, Shelf Life Books in Carytown.

WonTon passed away this week at the presumed age of 16. Arguably Richmond’s most famous store cat, WonTon was a constant presence at the shop, whether napping in the store’s window, lounging atop the checkout counter or patrolling the bookshelves.

“He had the aloofness to draw millions,” says Ward Tefft, Chop Suey’s original owner. “He loved being around. He did not like being held. He did not like being doted on too much, but he would follow people around.”

The beloved tuxedo cat adopted Chop Suey in the spring of 2008. As the store’s original location at 1317 W. Cary St. had minimal climate controls, it was common for employees to keep the back door and windows open during warm weather. One day, WonTon, who was less than a year old, strolled in through the back door and began reporting for duty. Chop Suey employees eventually placed a collar on WonTon and let him go about his business.

When Chop Suey closed its original location in 2008 and consolidated operations at its Chop Suey Tuey store in Carytown, WonTon made the move.

He was the subject of constant questions. Because of his perfect bowling pin shape while sitting, customers often asked if he was pregnant. When WonTon napped in the window, people would ask if the cat was alive, or if he was a stuffed cat.

“For some reason, they thought that we would have a dead cat on purpose in our window,” Tefft says.

The questions were so frequent and predictable that one employee created a WonTon Bingo card that listed these inquiries. Staff would fill out the card on busy Saturdays.

“He’s a perfect chill cat,” Tefft says. “He wasn’t necessarily a lover. He wouldn’t come lay on our laps, but he would lay on the counter just to be in close proximity.”

WonTon’s notoriety grew through “Caturday” Facebook posts, where writer and longtime Chop Suey employee Andrew Blossom would present candid photos of WonTon every Saturday. When The New York Times profiled Chop Suey in 2019, photos of WonTon featured prominently, including above the masthead for its Arts section. WonTon also appeared in books and calendars dedicated to bookstore cats.

“He was the best,” says Blossom, who now lives in Spokane, Washington. “He was a coworker, a colleague, a devoted companion, a commentator, a sounding board, a wanderer, a homebody, a snob. Over time, he became a mascot, a Richmond icon, a crotchety old man. Always, always he was a great pal.”

The Carytown store’s former entrance featured a painted version of WonTon with the banner “Home of the Caturday Miracle.” The back of the store had a mural that read “We Heart Wonton!” The store rebranded as Shelf Life Books earlier this year.

Though fame never phased WonTon, he still enjoyed being the center of attention. When Chop Suey brought director John Waters to the Byrd Theatre for the first time in 2015, WonTon clearly didn’t want to be upstaged. In what’s been determined a “hunting accident,” WonTon broke his jaw that day after apparently lunging at a bird from a great height, missing, and hitting the pavement with his chin.

“Over the years, he would show signs that looked like he was on his last leg, and then he would bounce back and be his normal chill self,” says Tefft, noting that WonTon had been hit by a car prior to his tenure at Chop Suey. “He definitely cashed in his nine lives, and maybe had a few extra bonus rounds.”

Though he might play fetch with a ball of receipt paper or nuzzle a face or two, WonTon never wanted to seem like he enjoyed the affection.

“He really was such a ham. He acted grumpy and disinterested a lot of the time, but he loved the attention,” Palmer says. “He was such a wonderful little cat, such a joy to hear his little smokers meow. He meowed like he’d been smoking a pack a day for 40 years.”

When Chop Suey changed hands in January 2022, Tefft says it just made sense for WonTon to stay at the store. Besides, Tefft had cats at home, and WonTon was a confirmed solitary cat.

“I couldn’t see him existing in any place other than the beloved spotlight of a place where people could come to see him and he could show something just north of disdain for their attention,” Tefft says.

After a decade and a half on the job, WonTon retired earlier this year after training his tuxedo cat interns Page and Mylar. He lived out his last months at the home of Shelf Life owners Chris and Berkley McDaniel.

In WonTon’s final hours he encountered a vet tech he’d literally left an impression on back when she was 9 years old: WonTon had bitten her.

“He was a great guy. He was a steady companion that was just a singular character,” Tefft says. “He was well loved in Richmond and beyond.”


WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: