Need A Taxidermied Bat Or Two-Headed Calf? Find It At Denver's Room Of Lost Things
As she tells the story she's told many times before, Ryan Moulton knows how weird this sounds.
"It's 3 o'clock in the morning at this point, maybe … Police lights are flashing and we're like 'oh crap!' So he shines his lights at us, we drop our knives and wave very friendly — covered in blood. It takes him five minutes — five long, eternal minutes — to come out of his cop car. He came out with a bullet-proof vest."
She now realizes how it must have looked to the Montana state patrolman who happened upon her and her wife, Lisa, on the highway that night.
"And he shines the light at us and he's like, 'So… what are you ladies up to?'" Moulton said. "And we're like, 'We're just trying to take home this roadkill to process it.' And he was like, 'Oh yeah, where's your permit?'"
It was one of the early lessons they learned along the way to opening their curiosity shop, The Room of Lost Things. Always make sure you have the proper paperwork — and maybe don't process a dead elk on the side of the road in the middle of the night.
Named after a Harry Potter reference, the store focuses on a variety of oddities, including doll heads, a stuffed two-headed calf, a vintage embalming machine, skulls (including human) and lots of taxidermy.
"Legal, of course," Lisa said. "We like to dress up our taxidermy mounts and kind of give it a... personality."
The store also features "wet specimens" — animals that have been preserved in jars as well as parts — like eyeballs and hearts.
One of the store's most famous items sits in the front window beckoning customers in to find out if it's actually real. It is.
The fetal horse sitting in a fish tank full of isopropyl alcohol and glycerin was aborted after the veterinarian found that its birth would almost surely kill both mother and baby.
The price? $4,000.
"We have him priced really high only because we don't want him to sell because he stops everybody in their tracks when they're walking past the shop," Ryan said.
But who buys this stuff?
"We honestly get all kinds of people in the shop," said Lisa, who handles much of the business side of things. "We get people that don't collect at all, but they're very interested in the shop and they think that we're a museum. So I get calls a lot asking if there's a fee to come in."
Customers include collectors, teachers in need of specimens for their classrooms, and those looking for the perfect gift. They also see a lot of tourist traffic, like Alyshia Schamp who's visiting from Peoria, Ill.
"We actually just Googled 'indoor things to do in Denver' because obviously it's kind of crappy outside," said Schamp, pointing at the snowy weather out the window. "And this looked like one of the more interesting things to take a look at."
Schamp was eyeing a baby sphynx fetus in a jar but ended up taking a labradorite stone home instead.
Owning a store that sells crazy items, like fossilized dinosaur poop, was actually something Ryan had been thinking about for awhile. She even had a list of all the crazy items she wanted to have. It's now framed and hung above the cash register.
She started in film school, learning to be an art director and working on student films, as well as with the crew for the fourth season of the TV show "Breaking Bad." On one film, she made a lot of walking stick props. They turned out so well she later started selling them at a local shop. The owner told her she could double the price if she added embellishments like claws and teeth to them.
"And so I started picking up roadkill," Ryan said. She learned how to preserve the animals by watching YouTube videos.
She introduced Lisa to the hobby on a camping trip when they picked up a deer that had been hit on the road. They ended up selling the skull, a few of the bones and the heart. They began making bone jewelry and other art projects.
That lead to a pop-up shop as part of the Santa Fe Arts District's First Friday Art Walk. It was so popular that finally they ended up opening a permanent shop. Recently they expanded their hours to seven days a week to meet the demand.
Ryan says people shouldn't mistake their love for the macabre, for a fascination with death.
"The reality is we actually love life and we're celebrating its diversity and its beauty and its creation," she said. "And it's cool that we can keep it preserved so that you can see how the thing lived and formed."
Most of the items in the shop that used to be alive died a natural death, Ryan said. While some of the taxidermied items are trophy mounts, they are all very old and often items that have been in people's family collections for generations.
"We actually have a huge vegan following," Ryan said. "They know we're not purposely killing things and that the animals aren't being farmed for use."
In addition to designing their own pieces, including doll-head planters, they also offer consignment and buy local art to sell in the shop.
"We really wanted to support other local artists that didn't necessarily have a storefront like we did," Lisa said.
Most of the items are curated by Ryan, who — when she isn't picking up roadkill — keeps an eye out on Craigslist and at estate sales for unique items. Like the unassuming toy cat wearing a bow tie.
"We didn't know what it did at first," she said. "I just bought it at a yard sale."
Later they found out that it mimics the last thing people say, in an extremely creepy voice.
It's kind of terrifying, like the "Talking Tina" episode of "The Twilight Zone" where the doll threatens people in an eerie child-like voice. Some people wouldn't want to be in the same house as something like that, while others would find it hilarious and entertaining.
But that's what Ryan and Lisa say they love most about The Room of Lost Things. One person's nightmare is another person's dream.