Our Stories Features

Cover Story: Dead For Sale

Story by Hanna Steinkopf-FrankGordon Friedman

Photos by Emily Albertson & Gordon Friedman

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“It smells like death and nachos in here,” says Adam Prawlocki, the osteo-preparator at Custom Cranium. It definitely smells, at the very least, like death. The aroma of nachos may be more subtle, subdued by the overpowering scent of decaying carcasses. Dermestid beetles eat away at the rotting flesh of a White-tailed deer skeleton, one source of the store’s undeniably putrid and indelible, thick smell. Another is a Jacob sheep skull that sits in a bath of hydrogen peroxide for bleaching. The bath is a pale yellow soup of organic material that simply reeks. Custom Cranium’s owner, Darian Baysinger, pulls the skull out from the soup to display how the sheep had four horns. It’s odd and rare, as is all the merchandise at Custom Cranium and its proprietors too.

The smell of the store is what most customers react to first, according to Baysinger. “If it’s not the scent of our bugs up at the front it’s, ‘I…Where do you? What? Huh? Where do you get your bones?’” she says. People also react strongly to Custom Cranium “because nobody really thinks of putting a bunch of dead animals in a store,” Baysinger says. “You know there’s the pet store, this is the opposite of the pet store.”

And although the store is covered wall-to-wall in animal skulls, skins, bones, and taxidermy of all kinds, the most fascinating pale white ortho-vestiges of organic life are tucked away in a back corner cabinet, though they are for sale too. For a few hundred dollars, you can take home a human skull. And, for only $25, you can start your collection of genuine human vertebrae.

Custom Cranium is one of Eugene’s new and curious oddities shops. Overcast Antiques, a shop that sells strange items like Masonic paraphernalia and 19th century medical equipment, is another. It’s only coincidental that both shops are only a block apart on Willamette Street in downtown. The two are one-offs, selling what at one time would have been considered inappropriate as nostalgia or collectables. Throughout history, the obscure and macabre have been pushed to the fringed edges of society, talked about in hushed tones, reserved for dark alleyways and red-light districts, or even literally burned at the stake. Today, the opposite is becoming true. While museums and history books preserve the essence of occult pastimes, shops like Custom Cranium and Overcast Antiques cater to those who are proud of their obsession with the weird, macabre, or heretical. And, business is booming.

At Overcast Antiques, owned by Jennifer Gerrity and her husband, the search for the perfect oddity is what motivates her passion for strange antiques. It’s easy to walk past Overcast Antiques. It doesn’t look like much from the outside – just a small, nondescript storefront – but once inside, a mystical homage to the occult presents itself: naturally mummified cats, Masonic memorabilia, old Pagan spell books and more bizarre accouterments occupy every nook of the shop. Boisterous opera music fills the store, which is only about the size of a dorm room. Despite its small scale, the Overcast Antiques represents Gerrity’s lifetime of collecting.

“I remember going to flea markets at the age of seven and buying Tarot cards and Egyptian jewelry,” says Gerrity who is Pagan and particularly drawn to Pagan antiques. While Gerrity has always been a collector, for most of her life, her passion for antiques was only a hobby. By trade she’s a botanist, but in her spare time she’d travel to rural parts of the United States or Europe looking for unusual antiques. In Europe, France and Belgium are her favorite places to unearth the macabre items that fill her shop. “The small towns in Belgium are ridden with open markets on the weekends and France has some of the best flea markets in the world,” she says. “They have one flea market that was established in the 1700s and is today a permanent part of the city. It’s the best place on Earth for me.”

For Baysinger, finding her store’s products is an entirely different pursuit. Much of the animals they use for taxidermy are found as roadkill. Human bones are surprising easy to procure too, according to Baysinger. “Teaching skeletons, they get old, they start falling apart, the steel rods rot and they get parted out,” she says. But, although real human bones from teaching skeletons find their way into Custom Cranium, there’s another way to get human bones.

“Some of the stuff we’ve got comes from old graveyards that are dug up overseas. They dig them up to build new roads or new apartment complexes, and they sell them because they don’t have grave records or nobody’s alive that cares.” Baysinger has an in with a network of buyers and sellers of human bones. According to her, there is a community of people who not only buy, but also sell legally exhumed bones from construction sites. “They don’t know what to do with them. They either sell them or take them and bury them in mass graves.”

The most valuable human bones come from skeletons with deformities, Baysinger says. “We can find human bones all day long. But we can’t find say, a Down’s syndrome skull with the bone deformities.”

Besides selling collectable human bones, Baysinger and Prawlocki also produce taxidermy of their own. Prawlocki’s background is in special effects and he holds a BFA from Florida State University. The two make anatomically correct articulations of animal skeletons and custom anthropomorphic pieces called “rogue taxidermy.” More of an artform than a scientific pursuit, rogue taxidermy pieces can be conceptually vague, humorous, or bizarre. “You can put a monkey in a leisure suit smoking a cigar. You’re going to be silly about it, but the goal is still to do it as skillfully as you can,” Prawlocki says.

Another oddity available at Custom Cranium is usually found beneath houses or in old barns: mummified cats. “They’d crawl under there to die when they’re old,” Baysinger says. With their dark, paper-like skin, sunken eyes, and still bony tails, the store’s mummified cats are intriguing because of their preservation, yet bizarre. That they’re for sale at all raises the question of who buys them. Regardless of the customers, there is a demand for the cats. “Most of what comes in here is from HVAC guys who go up in people’s attics and under people’s houses to install systems or clean out systems and they bring us the mummies they find,” Baysinger says. “And we’ll pay them!”

The cats retail for $300 each, but Baysinger adds there’s a caveat to that. “$300, if you know where to sell it,” she says. According to her, Ebay isn’t a good option for selling the mummies. And buyers on Craigslist “might just laugh at you” she says. It takes expertise to know not only where and to whom to sell the cats, but how. “You can just sell a mummy, but it’ll continue to rot and fall apart and we know how to stop the bacterial motion,” she says. And how to do they do that? “We can’t tell you how. It’s one of the trade secrets that we don’t give away.”

At Overcast Antiques, mummified cats are also for sale, though the store’s unusual antiques are their focus. Gerrity, who is self taught, uses knowledge from other dealers as well as information gathered from the Internet to hone her antiquing skills. She can tell the age of many antiques just by looking at their patina. She’s also skilled at analyzing post-mortem pictures, a Victorian custom in which people would take a photograph of their family members, usually children, right after they died. This was one of the few mementos these families had because photography was so expensive at the time.

“There’s usually a blankness in the face and the arms. You can tell, they are kind of limp and not alive,” she says. “There’s no activity in their pose. It’s very much someone who posed them.” It is when Gerrity is explaining these intricacies, be it a picture of a dead child, a spellbook, or a vial used to collect tears at Victorian funerals, that she lights up. For her, these antiques were not only significant to their original owners, but to her as well.

“Every once in a while I find a piece that is really mystical and those are the ones I have a really hard time selling because they are so rare and unusual. I know that it meant something to someone. That inspires me,” she says.

At Custom Cranium, Baysinger’s inspiration comes from within. She’s needed to keep personally motivated because friends and family questioned her career choice. “My family all thinks I’m weird and that this is a phase, of course, a 25-year phase,” she says. “And they’re waiting for me to do something with my college degrees instead of this.” Although she has no plans to change her occupation, she understands it is bizarre to many. “I know I’m weird. I know I’m eccentric,” she says. “I’ve always copped to that and I’ve always been ok with it because I’ve just always had a different look on things and it has never really bothered me.”

It’s Baysinger’s maverick attitude that in many respects defines her and Gerrity’s line of work. Each day they sell items which are atypical: bizarre antiques and art, homages to the deceased, or unusual taxidermies. Procuring, producing, and selling their wares isn’t always easy. And, there’s increasing numbers of curious customers to satisfy each day. In time, perhaps the macabre will become the mundane.

 

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