Visitors to Eclectic Collectibles in Williamsburg may enter with something specific in mind: an antique frame, perhaps, or specific knife for their latest film shoot. But as they pick through the endless piles of vintage flotsam, more often than not they stop dead in their tracks in front of the weird taxidermy corner.
A large vitrine shows stuffed chipmunks cavorting on a carousel, serving up drinks in a mini-tavern and playing in swings. In a full-on assault of visual information, there are also stuffed foxes, two-headed calves, and a wild-boar head placed in haphazard stacks. The exhibit is so weird and ripe for Instagram that owner Anthony Torres placed “No Pictures” signs all around.
But Torres also has bigger plans for his dead petz. He’s working to create a small taxidermy and vintage medical-items museum in small side-room of the massive store, a special place to properly display the pieces next to their quirky origin stories and history. The chipmunk showcase, for example, was originally created by a funeral-parlor owner in Wisconsin who wanted to give his clients something light to focus on as they dealt with their grief. The displays eventually became an attraction in their own right, interfering with his funeral business so he was forced to sell it.
Besides dancing chipmunks and two-headed calves, Torres also has a sloth from the 1800s, a penguin from the early 1900s, a dwarf-calf used in a sideshow circus in the 1930s, and he recently bought a four-tusk walrus from the 1800s. For the medical items, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, he wants to display rare wax human figures with open chest, heart and lung renderings, real skulls and skeletons, prosthetic eyes, and a brain in a jar (though he’s not yet sure if he’ll exhibit that yet).
But how does taxidermy relate to old medical pieces, you ask? “It doesn’t,” Torres conceded. And in his view, that’s not really the point. He has a lot of taxidermy and medical pieces, and he likes sharing them with people. “I think having a museum and having certain items for [people] to look at and understand the history behind it, they’ll learn and understand more what we have and what we had,” he said.
He also plans to put together a small museum of World War II military items using the memorabilia he has collected from estate sales over the years. For example, he has a uniform from a US naval commander, along with his story, military commendations and picture. “A lot of the times, people just get rid of it and it just becomes a uniform. There’s nothing behind it. If you have the story behind it, it still lives,” he said. “I want to be able to continue the life of every item that I have in one of the two museums.”
Sure, it may seem a bit random, but Torres, who has lived in Williamsburg since the 1970s, says he has always found intense pleasure in collecting and understanding the history of strange objects and knickknacks. “All my life, that’s all I’ve done: Learning about things, whether it’s learning the mechanics behind the item, learning the history behind the item,” he said. He owned a construction company for decades, but could never bear to throw out old possession during demolition jobs. So he started packing them away in his four-car garage until it was so stuffed he couldn’t get into his office. To lighten the load, he began garage sales on the weekend and realized he loved telling stories and explaining how fashioned items worked.
“What I enjoy is looking at the people when they smile and look at things and do that ‘wow,'” he said. “So I enjoy for people to ask me questions.”
About a year and a half ago he moved into the space on Metropolitan. He is funding the museum project entirely out of his own salary (along with a bit of change visitors sometimes slip into his dollar jar at the front of the taxidermy display). The future museum, planned to open at the end of April, will charge a small fee, likely $2 or $3.
In many ways, the whole ramshackle place feels like an archive itself, with Torres the encyclopedic librarian always on hand- something he has thought about before. “I would love to do a full museum out of the whole building, but I pay a lot of rent. There’s no way possible I’d be able to afford it,” he said. With the recent loss of Sanford & Sven to a rent hike, he has a point– but, then again, S&S’s freaky weasel diorama didn’t have anything on Eclectic’s chipmunk extravaganza.
Eclectic Collectibles, 285 Metropolitan Ave, near Driggs, Williamsburg. Open every day 12 p.m. – 10 p.m.