Why you should care
Because buying a human head — or a jackalope, or a two-headed taxidermy duckling — seems to make sense to us.
On entering Seattle’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, there are so many WTF moments it’s hard not to get jittery. WTF: “That’s not real. Is that real?” WTF: “Can you even have that? I thought that was illegal.” WTF: “Did you kill all these butterflies yourself?” WTF: “Aren’t you going to give that poor woman a decent burial?”
It’s the kind of crazy you could find only when looking to buy a present for that special someone in your life — and a generic gift certificate just won’t cut it. You could walk off with a mounted Nubian vulture or a creepy 6-foot rattlesnake skin (shot by a batshit-crazy uncle in the Arizona desert, apparently). How about a Civil War cannonball or a rhino-foot ashtray holder? Or the most popular take-home item of the moment: a rare-to-find $10 goatskin imitation shrunken head. In other words, this ain’t no eat-your-spinach kind of shop.
“It’s like Granny’s attic, if your granny collected cannibal forks, stuffed sharks and two-headed heifers,” says co-manager Justin James, the fifth generation of his family to run the shop since it opened in 1899. A semi-serious tribute to traveling fairs, medicine shows and the original Old Curiosity Shop — Charles Dickens’ creaky antiquities dealer in London — the cult family business is now run by brothers Justin and Neal, father Andy and cousin Owen.
“Many of the items we sold or acquired as oddities are rare and precious nowadays,” James continues. “We had giant man-eating clam shells from the Great Barrier Reef, sea turtle carapaces, elephant tusks, the skull of an extinct steppe bison and a rug made from a Sumatran tiger skin.”
But times are changing on Pier 54 at 1001 Alaskan Way, and to prove it the owners can no longer source prized items like tiny elephant carvings that fit inside a red bean, baskets made from armadillo armor or fleas dressed in itsy-bitsy costumes.
You can take home a back scratcher made from an alligator paw. Or a beautifully framed tarantula.
Peg Boettcher, Seattle’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shop
“Human curios are becoming impossibly rare,” says the store’s chief curio wrangler Peg Boettcher, who has been on board since 2003. “Still, you can take home a back scratcher made from an alligator paw. Or a beautifully framed tarantula.”
Now — as back then — the emporium-cum–voodoo lounge operates on shock value. One of the standout oddities, peering down from the rafters, is a mermaid specimen bought in 1923 from a fisherman who landed it off the shores of Duckabush, in Puget Sound. In your mind’s eye it may have flowing blond hair and centerfold Daryl Hannah looks, but this one shreds the rule book. Instead, picture a taxidermic booby trap of spiky vampire teeth, deformed fish scales and a creepy puppet skull, like Grover from Sesame Street half-drowned and high on acid.
Still, despite the B-movie props and mummified corpses — sideshow mummy Sylvester, first displayed at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, was found in an attic once belonging to a vaudeville dentist in the 1950s — the shop is stuffed with genuine, if strangely appealing, knickknacks. Some of which you probably need a license for.
“By far the weirdest ‘donation’ we’ve received was a shrunken head that arrived by mail in a box without a return address,” says Boettcher. “Apparently the donor didn’t want credit — and didn’t want it returned either.”