I used to own and run a scientific curiosity store called Wunderkammer, which means 'wonder chamber'. It was designed to look like a Victorian era museum with wooden shelves, lots of small drawers to open and cabinets that could be reached by a stepladder. The drawers and shelves were filled with scientific and medical instruments, fossils, models, butterflies and beetles, taxidermy and other ephemera. My friend Igor -yes, that is his real name- and I built the business including all the fittings and fixtures ourselves from cash earnings that we deemed surplus to requirements -the requirements being food, rent, booze, and cigarettes.
After a few years of the brief but heady financial highs and the long and dispiriting financial lows of retail obscurity we sold the business to a regular customer - an energetic and entrepreneurial older gentleman called Ray. Whenever Ray was in the store customers would approach him- distinguished, silver-haired gent that he was- to ask the price of this or that, or to request information about an item. Ray would shrug his shoulders apologetic and embarrassed and point them in the direction of me - the unlikely red-haired woman.
I have no regrets about selling Wunderkammer. When that door closed a whole batch of other doors swung open and now I'm making art, writing and illustrating books, have a freelance business in creative partnerships and have become a mother.
What I do miss about Wunderkammer is this: when you sit in a curiosity shop all day, chances are that something curious will happen. Odd things, wonderful things, unpredictable and sometimes downright bizarre things happened in Wunderkammer if not on a daily basis, then at least once a week. Surprising things still happen to me now, but I am convinced that being in Wunderkammer probably tripled or quadrupled the odds.
Two regular customers meet - Conrad, the man in black, a wry and sometimes inscrutable mathematician and 'Very Impressive' whose name (changed by deed-poll) is utterly appropriate -a rainbow garbed giant, booming, jovial and queer as all get out.
'Very' develops an instant crush and asks me if Conrad is available. I tell him Conrad isn't gay but Very is undeterred until I mention that he is also colourblind.
A man walks into the store. He is loathsome. He offers to sell me the head of a Turkish soldier that he has in a velvet-lined box. He tells me that his great-grandfather shot the Turk during the war and smuggled the head back into the country as a souvenir. I assume he is delusional and tell him that even if he did have such a head not only would I not sell it, I would consider calling the police and reporting it. The next week the papers are abuzz with the scandal of a World War I Turkish soldier's skull that has been anonymously sent to the war museum. The papers allege that an Australian soldier had taken the skull as a souvenir and kept it in a velvet lined box in his wardrobe. The Turkish consulate are making a lot of noise and the department of vetrens affairs desperately trying to hose down the media frenzy around our 'digger's dirty laundry.
An elderly woman comes into the shop. She is clearly out of place and nervous.
" I'm sorry to bother you" she says. " I wasn't sure where else to go. My mother died recently - she was very old. We, our family that is, have been going through her things and.. well.. I found this in.....in her delicates drawer. Do you know what it is?"
This happened often. People brought things in to be identified. Sometimes they then sold me the objects. Other times they went away pleased with their newly identified curiosity.
The object fits in the palm of my hand. It is a very delicate little device that looks like a wishbone on the end of a spring. It is made of pure gold.
I give the woman a receipt for the object and tell her to come back in a day or two.
When she comes back I tell her that it is her mother's contraceptive device - a wishbone pessary - one of the very early forms of IUD. This is one of the most beautiful medical collectibles I have every seen. With every ounce of my being and every covetous collector's bone in my body I pray for her to sell it to me.
" Oh." she says. " Dear me - well, I can't have that"
" Would you like me to find out what the gold is worth?" I ask. " Lucky next door is a gold and silversmith."
"That would be very kind of you" she says.
I am reminded of Sei Shonagon who, in the tenth century, wrote in her pillow book of ' Things that make one's heart beat faster".
Be still my beating little greedy heart.