Over three seasons of Oddities, we’ve seen Obscura Antiquities in New York deal with everything from diminutive straightjacket enthusiasts to a woman who makes art out of nail clippings. We dropped in for a chat with co-owners Mike Zohn and Evan Michelson, and buyer Ryan Matthew. It was gloriously weird.
Evan Michelson greets an old friend.
What’s your favorite item to ever come into the store?
Evan: Our medical mummified head. We had one a few years ago that was more beautifully anatomized than the one we have now - the face was actually hinged so you could open up the sinuses. That was my favorite thing ever. We sold it and I think Mike and I both regretted it.
Who’s the strangest person to ever walk in the door?
E: There’s a gentleman who has quite an eclectic collection of medical and religious items. He has an entire cosmological worldview of them that’s fascinating and complex. He’s not just a collector - he’s someone who puts it all into this very rambling and fascinating and sort of overwhelming narrative. He’s an old customer and we love him dearly, but of all the people who have ever come in he has the most complex feelings and stories attached to all these things. He has bones in every room, but he also collects religious icons and objects.
Ryan: It’s extensive, his story. It starts back in the '50s and '60s and gets stranger as the decades go on.
E: He has osteological specimens. Skeletons.
R: Skulls and different abnormalities.
E: In every single room! And some of them are quite normal.
R: Let’s be honest, it’s weird because he’s got them all over his bedroom.
E: He’s a darling and a very interesting person.
Has anything come into the store that you couldn’t bear to part with?
E: Yes, as a matter of fact there are a few things that are going to not be put out for sale. But it doesn’t happen as often as you think. If we put something out for sale, it’s for sale.
Mike: As far as the shop goes, there are a few pieces in here we like to keep as a sort of personal museum. People come in, they want to see the real crazy stuff. Like, “Oh, where are the heads?”
Is there anything you’d love to see that hasn’t shown up here yet?
M: There’s always stuff. I mean, there are a few museums, like the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia that has some amazing pieces that we’d love to have. They have the giant colon. It’s huge. You can actually get inside it.
E: We’d love a giant colon.
M: It’s at the College of Physicians - they have a dwarf skeleton! It was actually a prostitute in the late 19th century who died during childbirth and they have the child skeleton, too. It’s a lovely piece. They also have a giant skeleton – it’s next to the dwarf so you have the two extremes of skeletons.
E: See, that would be nice. I would also like an early Christian relic in a reliquary. That’s my holy grail, so to speak, so if anyone reading this finds one…
Have you ever been presented with something that just grossed you out?
M: Oh yeah. We stopped buying naturally mummified cats and little animals. People have offered us cats, rats, mice, dogs, squirrels, possums - anything little that could crawl underneath your porch and die and dry out. We don’t buy them. Some of them are just really, truly disgusting.
R: They’re not fully decomposed - they’re not dried out yet, and that leads to things like bugs and moths. I stay away from anything that looks like it could have potentially had moths, because that can kill a taxidermy collection.
Mike Zohn, pictured with something that may or may not be lunch.
What was the last thing you had to apologize for?
[long, awkward pause]
E: Silence! Also, I didn’t clean the dishes.
M: I was late shipping some merchandise.
R: I was just going to say “alcohol” and leave it at that.
What’s your favorite curse word?
E: It’s so simple. Fuck.
M: I’m split between that and calling people douchebags. It comes out a lot.
R: Mine is "fucface." But with an f-u-c – no k.
M: For some reason I called someone a fucknut the other day when I was driving - it just came out. Like, "you fucknut, get out of the way!" It was really strange.
E: Then you can do “fucking douchebag.”
M: Yeah, you can definitely do combos.
E: Douchebag fuckface would cover all of us.
What’s the worst hangover you’ve ever had?
E: I have never had a drink in my entire life.
M: It’s been awhile. It’s been a very long time. I’ve learned my lesson.
R: This actually has a lot to do with the apology answer that I had. It wasn’t that long ago…
What was your first car?
R: An El Camino from ‘74.
M: Mine was a hand-me-down Ford Pinto, early to mid ‘70s.
E: Mine was a late ‘70s pea green Buick, handed down as well. Family heirloom.
Do you have a scar that tells a story?
M: There’s one on my thumb. When I was a kid, we were having a blizzard outside and my dad said, “Ok, look, it’s snowing out there, there’s like feet of snow, so everyone be careful. I don’t want any kinds of emergencies.” I was cutting something with a razor blade and it slipped and just cut my thumb right open. Blood was pouring out of my hand and I’m like, “Uh, dad, remember when you said to be careful?”
R: I was mountain climbing with my father when I was 13, and as I was going up about 20 feet a boulder fell on my head. My scar’s actually in the back of my head. So then I became obsessed with natural ephemera after that - I always liked it as a kid, but I became obsessed with different things. First it was baseball cards, then it was skulls, then it was taxidermy. I attribute it to that day.
E: I’ve never heard that story.
R: I always forget about it.
M: Maybe something’s loose in there.
E: I am beautifully scarred from head to foot. Well, from neck to knee. I have a collection of the most amazing scars. But that’s another story.
Ryan Matthew: Struggling with the lid on this jar since 1852.
Do you have a party trick?
R: A thick New York accent is mine.
M: I can make strange farting noises from various parts of my body. Here, I’ll show you the eye one. [Mike presses his palm to his eyeball and presses repeatedly – it makes a loud farting noise.] Or my shoulder. I can do it with my feet as well. Like, I come out of the shower and I have a tile floor and it makes odd farting noises under my feet. It’s very strange.
E: I can’t demonstrate mine, but I was in an industrial band for many years and I used to collect pretty boys – good-looking Goth guys - and I’d put them inside industrial washer or dryer shells and give them drumsticks, and then I’d beat the outside with a baseball bat. And that was sort of like, you know, courtship.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever put in your mouth?
M: I have a really bad gag reflex. Whenever I go to the dentist they have to spray my throat down and numb me because I just gag. Even brushing my back teeth takes me awhile because I’m gagging all the time.
E: I was at a restaurant in Paris and the chef made a dessert called Mille–feuille, which is a thousand layers. You put this whole thing in your mouth and it melts down to nothing. That was the largest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. It was about a foot high and a foot wide.
R: Mine is probably a burger at that place in L.A. we went to. I couldn’t get my mouth around this burger, so I had to take some stuff out. I think that was the biggest thing I tried to put in my mouth. Just a burger. Nothing phallic about that!
What’s the one thing to remember in a fistfight?
R: Go for the nuts first.
E: Yeah, that’s right.
You guys fight dirty!
E: Well, a lady always puts a knee in the groin.
What if you’re fighting another lady?
E: Knee in the groin, it works! Or grab the hair and knee the nose. That’s what I know.
M: Well, there’s two ways. You could either just go apeshit first and overwhelm the other person, or you be careful and duck every now and again or block. Most people don’t want to go more than a couple hits, so it’s either strike first or get the hell out of there.
Who was the last person to see you naked?
M: Oh, shit.
E: Well, I’m married. So my husband.
M: Yeah, I’ve haven’t been to the doctor in a while, so I’d say my wife as well.
R: Shit, that’s such a hard one to answer, to be honest with you.
Does it link back to your apology and hangover answers?
R: Yeah, still that night!
Finish this sentence: If I ruled the world for a day, I would…
E: The world would be vegetarian. And there would be cessation of all violence. I feel like Miss America! We’d have an international science détente and all nations would agree that empirical knowledge and evidence would rule every political system, and we’d all join hands and love one another without seeing any kind of difference.
R: I’d try to eliminate stupidity.
M: These are quite lofty. I really don’t know. I’d probably just put something in my mouth. Then I’d make everyone in the world make fart noises at the same time. And then the world would blow up.