Bear Creek Antiques
by O.F Cieri, 3.24am Sept 10th 2021
You can tell a lot about an area by its antiques. Like a hunter following a trail, little stories about the general nature of a population are marked by what is left behind by previous generations. Old fads mix with local history and faded opportunities to give an insight into the character of a town, or region.
Naturally, the kind of antiques found in Bear Creek were of immediate interest to me-- and since the Bear Creek Gazette keeps getting published, I have to assume it’s safe enough to visit. So, having resigned myself to the possibility that I may not be able to leave, I went on an expedition to uncover some of Bear Creek’s best antique shops.
Bear Creek has the predictable number of antique shops for an area its size-- three tightly curated boutique storefronts and one large warehouse where individual retailers sell off counters or from booths. The antique warehouse is, as far as I’m concerned, the perfect shopping experience. They are always huge and airy, and the staff stay at the counter until you’re ready to make your purchase. You have no obligations but to wander around until something catches your eye.
The warehouse has many of the predictable staples one would expect for a hodgepodge of dealers. There’s glassware, license plates, hunting trophies, antique barbies and other packaged dolls. I asked someone on staff for the tijuana bibles and he introduced me to the adults only section of the antiques store. I asked if they had any unnerving stories, but apart from commonplace industry stories about things moving after hours there was nothing with that particular Bear Creek zest.
As I made my way to the medical antiques and found a disappointing lack of bones, I began to wonder if the warehouse was a kind of negative zone in the Bear Creek vector. After all, it is a hobby that naturally attracts people to liminal spaces. The homes of dead relatives, ruins, beaches where industrial waste collects. These are the kinds of people who swap fond stories about their shop ghost the way others might talk about their shop cat. If any group would automatically negate Bear Creek, I would assume it would be their antiquers.
The second floor of the warehouse was more what I expected, and harder to get through. This was the furniture display floor, and like the space below it was sectioned off into booths. However, each dealer-- or whoever had set it up-- organized the items into little dioramas. Each one was like looking into a life-sized dollhouse, including little touches like an ashtray full of cigarettes or a tv playing an old sitcom to imitate a lived-in feel. Most disturbing of all, each diorama had a human figure in it. Not mannequins but wrinkled, mummified bodies. Some lay in bed, others were face-down on their kitchen tables. Some were on the floor. Some displays featured IV racks and oxygen tanks, while some had dark spatter stains on the floors or wall. When I touched one it’s skin was papery and thin. The eyes seemed to have been stuffed with cotton before being sewn shut. It had a cup with an upper palate veneer on the bedstand next to it, but no water, so not your stereotypical floating pair of dentures. I lifted the cup and saw a red sticker with the number 5 drawn on it. The veneers were twenty. When I opened the drawer I found three pairs of reading glasses, an inhaler, and a Highland romance novel. The inhaler was two dollars, the novel fifty cents. Not exactly a stellar review, but then she seemed like she’d been a tacky person. She owned a lot of faded pastel pink and turquoise.
The same man who’d showed me the Tijuana bibles came up to see how I was doing. I asked if everything was for sale, and he said yes. The bodies could be sold whole or in pieces, depending on their quality. He gave me a tour of some popular displays, such as Richard, who was mayor of Bear Creek back in the nineties. He lost most of his skin during a particularly dry summer, and most of his belongings-- including his recliner-- were gone. All that was left was his mandible and most of his ribs, spread out on the floor in a facsimile of his final pose. The mandible had just one tooth jutting out of the gray bone. I don’t normally go for jaws, but it had too much character to leave behind, and he gave me a great deal on it. He showed me a few other bare bones from residents who died of cancer, which gave them that dry sponge look that comes when something dies of a prolonged illness, and as an extra treat he took me to the True Crime section.
This was what really sealed the deal for me. The antiques warehouse didn’t bother with any special effects like flickering lights or a smoke machine, but displayed final scenes with perfect faithfulness. While everything is technically for sale, certain displays have higher prices simply because they couldn’t be replaced. The crown jewel of Bear Creek’s antiques warehouse has to be the quadruple homicide display from 1905. Unfortunately, the man who broke in to the house to murder the family couldn’t be displayed as faithfully as Richard or the other residents of Bear Creek, because, as was common for the time, he was reduced to parts after his execution. Alas, all Bear Creek’s dedicated antique dealers could salvage of his corpse were two law books bound a few months after his death, which could conceivably have his skin, but the family were in almost perfect condition, given their age and the state in which they died. The maid who came to investigate the noise was left half in a reproduced doorframe. Her skull was arranged around the axe that broke it, and although time had rendered most of her bone to dust the staff made an outline of her profile in blood. Next was the father, shot with his own gun when he came down to defend his family, and then the mother and daughter who were still tied up in their bedroom. In the original house their bedroom was upstairs, but for the floor display they were moved to a separate, smaller room. According to the staffer they were suffocated to death. At the time of their deaths their jewelry and other personal belongings were left to their extended family, but over the past hundred and twenty years the scene was slowly re-assembled. I asked who, and how, but he didn’t seem to know. If you’re reading this, I want you to know how impressed I am by your dedication.
The three boutiques are of varying quality. The one on main street is more of a souvenir shop for the Bear Creek area than a dedicated antiques shop. They carry Bear Creek shirts, the Gazette, stuffed Happiness toys and other such assorted paraphernalia. Their antiques section includes a lot of artificially aged things, like old lanterns and coat hooks. After speaking to the owner I learned they are only reluctantly an antiques shop, and only because they still receive a shipment of valerian extract from the bottling plant that shut down in the 60s. According to her, the souvenir shop used to be the town pharmacy, and the bottling plant was where the roller derby rink currently stands. Apparently some of the walls of the rink still feature the original brickwork from the factory, but none of the equipment remains. Additionally, the owner has managed to track down some other bottles from the same plant and can prove that the style changed over the years, but the shipment she receives on the second of every month are paper-wrapped, wax-sealed bottles from 1884. When she sent out a sample to be carbon-dated the lab proved they are made out of original 1884 glass, and a paper expert in Chicago confirmed the wrapper is also the right age. So for anyone interested in antique paper, wax, glass and valerian root, Bear Creek is the only place on earth with an unlimited supply.
Right across the street from her shop is a high-end boutique dedicated to mid-century modern and Scandinavian designs. This is not my area of expertise, but I can appreciate the quality of their curatorial work. When I asked for the owner they brought out a bisque porcelain doll with a cloth body. They explained that she was only capable of movement when no one was looking at her, so the interview had to be conducted on paper while we all turned away to let her write. She explained that she inherited the shop back in 2012 after the death of the previous owner. She is proud to be the very first inhuman entity to own and operate a business, but also expresses great delight over the fact that no doll can be convicted of murder. The legal ramifications of her proprietorship are complicated, but I never claimed to be a lawyer.
My review of the final antique shop will have to wait, as apparently Richard was banned while alive and the ban extends to his bones, as well. However, the shop window shows a beautiful selection of satsuma porcelain and the frozen, screaming mouths of transparent children. Based on a rough summation of the display, I believe the dealer specializes in East Asian antiques, which must be very difficult to source in Bear Creek. The breadth of diversity and quality in Bear Creek's antiques is truly amazing, and I for one can't wait to see more.