Some consumers prefer to shop at big box stories, while others like to peruse smaller boutique stores. And then there are the people who are looking for something a little more ... unusual. You might find these people in a curiosity shop, where they eagerly admire torturous-looking Victorian medical devices, “human ivory” (a.k.a. fingernail) jewelry, and taxidermy mounts of two-headed calves.
Needless to say, every day at an oddities shop is pretty much Halloween. But what better time to poke around their shelves and displays than this time of year, when all of us—not just the collectors and connoisseurs—are in the mood for something a little bit strange and even possibly creepy and freaky? We'd suggest starting with these purveyors of weird wares from around the United States.
1. Bazaar // Baltimore, Maryland
Greg Hatem and Brian Henry were two twentysomethings working jobs they didn’t like—Hatem was waiting tables and Henry was working in a photo lab—when they decided to take the plunge and open Bazaar (clearly a play on the word bizarre). “We both have strange collections, and there was a [retail] spot available in one of our favorite neighborhoods and we decided to go for it,” Hatem tells Mental Floss. “It started as stuff we found extremely weird—we had some rare albino specimens, and we had this one piece that was, like, framed dog hair that had won some dog show in, like, 1974.” The Ouija board was named in Baltimore, so Hatem and Henry naturally sell a lot of those. The store also boasts a signature candle collection, which includes such scents as Abandoned Hospital, Overgrown Cemetery, Plague Doctor, and Séance. “Overgrown Cemetery has a dirty, earthy smell, and Séance has spiritual herbs,” Hatem says. “Abandoned Hospital smells like a decaying building.” Well, naturally!
The Ouija boards and the candles are along the lines of what’s to be expected; Bazaar doesn’t disappoint, however, when it comes to the unexpected. “I’d say one of the creepier things we have in the shop is a sculpture made out of intestines,” Hatem says. “The face is sort of like a horse face and it has a female bust. We believe it’s pig intestines.” (In a follow-up email, Hatem explained that the sculpture had been found in an abandoned farmhouse during a clean-out by new owners, and that he knows virtually nothing about it beyond that.) Bazaar also has some original artwork by serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was a prolific creator of drawings and paintings. “The Gacy piece is actually done in marker, and it depicts his alter ego, Pogo the Clown,” Hatem wrote. “I don't know if he titled most of his pieces, but it would be commonly referred to among collectors as a ‘Pogo.’ The Pogo pieces that were done with paint are among his most prized works, but the marker one is still pretty creepy!”
2. Ballyhoo Curiosity Shop // Seattle, Washington
“I’ve sold more human bones than I know what to do with,” Ballyhoo Curiosity Shop owner Ryan Robbins tells Mental Floss, but Homo sapiens parts aren't the only unusual specimens you'll find here. The store also has a dissected pigeon encased in resin—“You can see all the internal organs”—and framed insects and taxidermy bats. Where does Robbins find all this stuff? “It started off with me traveling around, and now that we have a reputation, people will bring us stuff,” Robbins says. “Or we go to estate sales.” An owner of a tattoo shop that closed sold him a mummified cat. And Robbins also has some "dental phantoms" in the store. “They’re weird,” he said. “It’s a metal armature of a human head that looks like the Terminator ... It’s basically a metal skeleton head. Dentists practice on them and they’re very unusual and creepy.”
3. The Weeping Glass // Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Though The Weeping Glass is bursting with odd and curious tchotchkes, probably one of the coolest things about this Pittsburgh establishment is its in-store events, which feature evenings of cocktails and performance artists who tell tales of murder, and an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator who does Poe readings (can you hear the heart beating under the floorboards?). “We definitely see a pickup around the Halloween season, but we have a lot of traffic year-round,” co-owner Kelly Braden says. “Halloween is every day for us.” Currently, there’s a full sheep skeleton in the shop, as well as a warthog skull and an ostrich skull. A cat skeleton Braden calls Ramona “sleeps” on one of the chairs. And it wouldn’t be an oddities shop without a taxidermy two-headed cow (seriously, they all seem to have one). “His name is Dippy, and he’s from a private collector we deal with,” Braden explains.
4. Las Vegas Oddities // Las Vegas, Nevada
“I had a guy walk in and pull a skull out of a kid’s backpack once. That skull was not fresh, so I didn’t call the cops,” says Vanessa VanAlstyne, owner of Las Vegas Oddities. “I did have a guy once try to sell me a half gallon of potassium cyanide from mining—that’s enough potassium cyanide to kill the entire Strip. Las Vegas is crazy.” Given these stories, it's understandable why VanAlstyne doesn't cold-buy off the street. “I do get a lot of people who are like ‘grandpa was a dentist’ or ‘my father was in medicine in the ‘40s,’” she says.
There is no “typical” Las Vegas Oddities customer, according to VanAlstyne, but visitors to her store are usually connoisseurs of some sort. “People who are in a field tend to collect things from that field—a lot of doctors or dentists or dental hygienists," she says. "Then you have your history buffs or your horror fans.” Circus sideshow memorabilia is popular—“this is a very circus/sideshow kind of town,” VanAlstyne says—and, of course, natural history stuff: The shop sells everything from mounted beetles to taxidermied bats.
5. Uncommon Objects // Austin, Texas
Austin's Uncommon Objects was founded in 1991 as an antique collective, but over the years it has evolved, according to its website, "into the one-of-a-kind emporium of transcendent junk" assembled by 24 antique vendors. But the shop doesn't just sell antiques. One of the favorite oddities Uncommon Objects owner Steve Wiman has ever sold were bovine hairballs that form naturally in a cow’s stomach. “They lick their hair and it doesn’t dissolve,” Wiman tells Mental Floss. “They weren’t really heavy—they were spherical and looked like softballs—but you could see tiny hairs and several different tones. I would have never known what it was if I hadn’t been told, but they came from a slaughter house." (Cows can't vomit, so these hairballs are only found after death.) "I sold the collection to someone who had a cattle ranch. I think they ended up in a good home.”
In addition to the semi-gross, Uncommon Objects also deals in the creepy and macabre, although maybe not intentionally. “We get people coming through the front door sometimes asking if we have any haunted items, and our answer is, ‘See if you feel if anything haunted is in here,’" he says. "We’ve had paranormal groups come through and we’ve turned off the power in the shop and they’ve caught a lot of things they felt might be haunted.” Does Wiman himself believe in ghosts? “I think most people who deal with old stuff find that there’s an energy that comes off some stuff, and there’s some stuff that’s a little twisted or perverse without any explanation.”
One night, the store’s alarm went off and Wiman was called to the store by the cops while they conducted their search of the premises. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, but an idea for an in-store event was formed. “We’re in conversation now about doing flashlight tours around Halloween,” Wiman says. “When I saw what they were seeing just via flashlight—like when you come upon a baboon head or a creepy doll—it’s a very different experience from what you see during the day.”
One of the store’s most dedicated customers is YouTube sensation Grav3yard Girl, who, with 8.5 million subscribers and regular Uncommon Objects "hauls," brings the store—and most likely oddities shops in general—a ton of business. “Creepy dolls are one of the things she’s bought for many, many years,” Wiman says. “She’s made them desirable to people who maybe wouldn’t have been into them.”
6. Woolly Mammoth // Chicago, Illinois
Even the origins of Chicago's Woolly Mammoth—a "curiosity cabinet of odd, amusing, and eclectic items resurrected from the past,” according to its website—are a little spooky: Husband-and-wife owners Skye and Adam Rust came up with the idea in 2010 while on a trip to Transylvania, Romania, where they visited sites associated with Vlad the Impaler.
According to the Rusts, the creepiest oddity they ever sold is also their biggest regret. “We acquired a medically prepared, mummified human head,” they wrote in an email while on a buying trip in Europe. “There were cutaways that showed facial nerves, eyelashes, and some mustache remnants. We named him Alexander the Great, and we can barely look at a picture of him without getting sick to our stomachs that we sold him.”
Like Bazaar in Baltimore, Woolly Mammoth also has a John Wayne Gacy painting, but this one is probably even more disturbing than an infamous Pogo drawing: it’s Gacy’s painted depiction of Adolf Hitler. Woolly Mammoth also sells Victorian mourning hair wreaths, as well as 19th century obstetrics tools—primarily cephalotribes (an instrument that was used to crush the skulls of stillborn fetuses) as well as an in utero mechanical trephine (a saw for removing a cylindrical piece of tissue or bone).
7. Cleveland Curiosities // Cleveland, Ohio
According to Clement Kunkle, who owns Cleveland Curiosities with his wife Hallie Wallace, this generation is into being gothy and weird—hence the rise in popularity of oddities shops. Kunkle has always been a bit pleasantly gothy and weird himself, collecting skulls and engaging in bug-pinning projects and nature-collecting since the age of 13. “It progressively turned into more of a profession,” he tells Mental Floss. At Cleveland Curiosities, though, it’s Wallace who teaches the in-store butterfly-pinning classes, and a photographer friend comes in and does tintype photos for anyone who wants one. In September 2019, Butch Patrick, the actor who played Eddie Munster on The Munsters, made an in-store appearance.
Some of the creepy stuff in Cleveland Curiosities includes old masquerade clown and devil masks. The store has the requisite two-headed calf, abnormal medical human skulls, and some Victorian human skeletons. For the tamer customers in the Lakewood shopping district, Cleveland Curiosities sells pins, prints and patches from various artists. “They’re not too creepy,” Kunkle says, “but people feel comfortable buying them because they’re just weird enough.”
8. Ye Olde Curiosity Shop // Seattle, Washington
Established in 1899, Seattle’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shop is one of the country’s O.G. curiosity shops. It all began when Joseph Edward Standley, later known to the public as “Daddy Standley,” won a clean desk award as a child and, as a prize, was given a book on natural oddities by his teacher, according to Standley’s great-great grandson Neal James, one of the store’s managers. Standley began collecting all sorts of things and, as an adult, opened a grocery store that he decorated with his various oddities. “After a while, no one could find the groceries, so he decided to open this store,” James tells Mental Floss.
The store sells framed spiders and bats, shrunken-head replicas, animal skeletons, and unusual taxidermy. But it’s the store’s museum that contains the most interesting artifacts. There are not one, but two Fiji Mermaids—a half-monkey/half-fish taxidermy creature that originated with Japanese sailors and was made most famous by P.T. Barnum. Another unique item sounds similar to the mummified head from Woolly Mammoth. “We call him Medical Ed, and he’s a head that was mummified and it opens up so that you can study all the inside parts,” James says. “It appears to be something that wasn’t very common. You can’t find many of them anywhere.” Other curious items include bone and ivory jewelry, (more) hairballs from a cow’s stomach, a preserved baby octopus, and a whale eardrum.
James is an encyclopedia of knowledge about the business, and speaks with infectious enthusiasm about each object and oddity. Does he plan to follow in his great-great grandfather’s footsteps? “Most certainly.”
9. The Creeper Gallery // New Hope, Pennsylvania
Owners and artists D.L. Marian and Danielle Deveroux call their store a “completely unique gallery experience,” and they're not kidding. The Creeper Gallery, located on Bridge Street in New Hope, Pennsylvania, is full of unusual original art, vintage taxidermied animals, manuals from secret societies, a human skeleton, and first editions of Edgar Allan Poe's works. Then there's The Red Room, which contains haunted dolls, paintings, and even books. Marian and Deveroux find items for the shop all over the world: “There’s no Walmart for it!” Deveroux told CBS. “So we’re hunting and pecking. We’re going far and wide.”
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2021.