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Ye Olde Curiosity Shop: Cornucopia of Curios
by Peg Boettcher

“Are you through sorting the shrunken heads? Good. Now you can put the dog poop out.”
Dialogue from a B horror film? Orders heard in Hell? Nope, it’s just business as usual at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on Seattle’s waterfront!

On a typical summer day, you’ll hear the shop before you see it. Somebody’s sure to have dropped a couple of quarters into the vintage Artizan military band organ just outside. The machine will be belting out “Falling in Love Again” loud enough to compete with the ferry horns from Colman Dock next door. Cast a quick glance at the Olympic mountain range shining far away over Elliott Bay, then drift on in through the open doors, under the massive lintel carved by a Native American tribal member.

The sign on the doorframe says — as it has for a century and more — “Everyone Welcome.” That heady aroma is concocted of salt air, exotic incense, frying seafood from venerable Ivar’s Fish Bar next door, and traffic fumes from the viaduct across the street. As one customer was moved to remark, “It smells like the sixties in here!”

The player piano in back will be tinkling away, alternating overtures from obscure Italian operas (Zampa, anyone?) and hot jazz from the twenties. You’ll hear the rattle of the penny stretching machine, the clatter of lucky medallions dispensed by Black Bart, the One-Armed Bandit, and the giggling of yet another generation of school-kids delighted to find that packages of fart powder, goatskin shrunken heads and plastic dog poop well are within their means.

Look up. There’s Skinny Stubbs, shoplifting deterrent, all six, skeletal feet of him hanging from a noose tied to the rafters. Feel as if you’re being watched? You are… by a gigantic pair of bespectacled eyes that once advertised an English optometrist’s practice. Examine the ancient and desiccated “devil fish” spread out like a cartwheel, the walrus skull with three tusks, the gleaming line of brass samovars from Mother Russia, the blue Chinese foo dog, Japanese temple bell, two-headed calf… It’s like your great-grandma’s attic, if your great-grandma collected human skulls instead of old dress patterns.

It’s taken the shop a long time to get this weird… over a hundred years, in fact. Ever since its birth as a trading post at the turn of the twentieth century, it’s been packed to the gills with the exotic, the creepy, and the wonderful. Founder Joseph Edward Standley, fondly known as “Daddy,” had an appetite for oddities equal to his talent for promotion, and his tastes ran from the gargantuan — a whale’s jawbones once framed the shop’s entrance — to the miniscule (a grain of rice sporting a teeny painting of Mount Rushmore). Nattily garbed in a three-piece-suit, smoking cap, and round black spectacles, Mr. Standley presided over a shop in which baskets made of armadillo hides, tools of ivory, bone and jade, shells of every size and description, ships in bottles, cuckoo clocks, jumping beans and moose-skin moccasins vied for space with totem poles, stuffed badgers, whale oosiks, fleas in dresses, a spooky “mermaid” and shrunken heads.

Over the years, the shop became a must-see destination for famous people who passed through the area, as well as innumerable tourists. Among the illustrious could be counted Charlie Chaplin, presidents Warren G. Harding and Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Ripley, J. Edgar Hoover, Katharine Hepburn, Will Rogers, Sylvester Stallone… even Queen Marie of Rumania. Modern day visitors include U2’s Bono, Kevin Smith of “Clerks,” and Chris Kattan of “Saturday Night Live.”

Even after Standley’s demise in 1940 at the age of 86, the family continued to actively run the business, which expanded to occupy locations next door to one another on piers 54 and 55. On any given day, great-grandson Andy James can be found in the first shop scrambling up a ladder to change a burned-out lightbulb, or chatting with one of the young Native American artists who come in to sell their carvings. “I buy from the great-grandkids of artists who sold to my great-grand-dad,” says Andy, whose boyish grin makes his wildly tousled pepper-and-salt hair seem incongruous; “It’s kind of cool.” Wife Tammy takes charge of the second shop, where she can be found doing everything from stocking souvenir racks to building a “cave” to house Gloria, the child mummy.

Lest you think the shop’s attractions are a static bunch, acquired long ago and left to gather dust, you should know that the Jameses recently returned from a trip to Cornwall, England. There they attended the breakup via auction of the famous collection of Victorian taxidermist, Walter Potter... where they came away with a four-legged chicken, two-headed bull calf, a village made of cork, and other marvels.

The Big Three Oddities
There’re a multitude of wonders to see, but the following curios win the popularity contest every time, judging by the sheer number of people who ask for them.

Sylvester the Desert Mummy
When Joe James (Daddy Standley’s grandson) got the call in 1955 from a deceased dentist’s family pleading with him to please, please come and get that mummy out of the attic, little did he realize how popular his new acquisition would be. For of all the shop’s attractions, “Sylvester” is definitely the star of the show. He’s been drawing a crowd since very soon after his death late in the nineteenth century, fascinating audiences in the sideshows, carnivals and World’s Fairs of long ago with his near-perfect state of preservation.

Sylvester’s existence as a de facto time capsule — a window into the world of more than a century past — can be attributed to the fourteen pounds of deadly arsenic used to preserve him. The technique, cutting-edge technology when it was developed during the Civil War (the body of Abraham Lincoln was prepared the same way), virtually halted the natural process of decay.

“Sylvester is simply the best-preserved mummy we have found,” says Jerry Conlogue, co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University and co-author, with colleague Ron Beckett, of “Mummy Dearest.” The researchers, who have examined hundreds of mummies throughout the world, first visited Sylvester under the auspices of National Geographic channel’s “Mummy Road Show.” They were surprised and delighted to find Sylvester in possession of all his major organs, and amazed to discover that the sprinkling of round bumps on his head and jaw were steel shotgun pellets. “He must have taken a blast pretty close to his face,” mused Jerry. “That had to have hurt like heck.” The wounds had had plenty of time to heal over, giving rise to the question: why didn’t he have them removed?

There’s just one more mystery to add to the list. Tall tales told of Sylvester range from wild to unbelievable: he is a desperado who was shot off his horse in the desert and dried out overnight; he’s a border-jumper betrayed and abandoned by his guide; he’s John Wilkes Booth. Though he’s been studied (literally) up the wazoo by scientists eager to expose his secrets with x-rays, CT scans and MRIs, his essential mystery remains intact. We don’t know who he was in life. We can only gaze and wonder at him in death.

The Mermaid
With a fang-studded maw, nasty claws, and tufts of ratty hair covering its body, this monster couldn’t tempt a sailor to save its life. Daddy Standley insisted he got it from a fisherman who shot it off the shores of Duckabush, Washington in the ’20s. The man (named Smith, natch) suffered terrible remorse after he got it back from the taxidermist’s and couldn’t wait to unload the thing. “He tells me it was years before he got over it,” a local newspaper quoted Standley. “He never killed another.” The shop’s specimen is said to be the largest of its kind in the world.

Shrunken Heads
And the creep factor shoots off the scale! Daddy Standley agonized over the purchase of a collection of seven heads offered by George Gustav Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian. He made up his mind moments before the door slammed shut on all international traffic in human heads, in the ’30s. Tammy James attests to the shrunken torso’s extreme rarity. “Ripley’s Museum would dearly love to get their hands on it,” she says with pride. Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop Too can be found side by side on Piers 54 and 55 on Seattle’s waterfront. Learn more about the shop at www.yeoldecuriosityshop.com.

 

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