‘We show the utmost respect to human remains and handle them with dignity.’
Not your average antiques shop, Pandora’s Box in York likes to push boundaries on what can be defined as a curiosity. The above disclaimer, for instance, applies to a human clavicle bone, originally from a medical skeleton – on sale for £30.
The shop stocks more than just human bones, it should be stressed. Fox, rabbit, stoat, and badger skulls are also available.
Other items on display are similarly unlikely to find their way onto Antiques Roadshow, except perhaps the Halloween special. A vintage speculum (for display only), ether mask, and tonsil guillotine are staples of what can only be considered the weirdest shop in York.
Even the shop sign declares: ‘Your one stop weird shop’…
Run by married couple Greg and Heather Bowser, the business on Colliergate was conceived after a dry run in America. The pair, both in their early 40s, have both always been fascinated by the strange or countercultural.
Greg, born in Yorkshire, was fond of taking his pet chicken Henrietta for rides in an old pram around obstacle courses he constructed out of “bits and pieces that he found”.
Heather, from Connecticut in the United States, would chase her classmates around with a shark foetus stolen from the science lab at school. In her spare time she held funerals for roadkill, and took walks in cemeteries while dreaming up colourful stories about the dead.
The pair first met on an online chatroom in the late Nineties long before Tinder and online dating normalised using the internet to meet new people. After a year and half chatting online Heather flew over to the UK to finally meet Greg and the two were engaged within a week.
Together their shared fascination with the strange and morbid started evolving from a mere hobby into a business venture. Greg and Heather started buying antiques at flea markets and reselling them on eBay before carving out a territory in multi-dealer shops.
Finally, in 2011 the Bowsers opened the first Pandora’s Box in a small town in Massachusetts, initially supported by Greg’s job as a car mechanic. The enterprise quickly proved successful thanks to online sales, allowing Greg to quit the day job and focus on the shop full time with his wife.
Harnessing their combined talents, the couple count selling a 19th century diaphonised human foetus and several human skulls among the proudest achievements of the US branch.
After relocating to York in November last year for their daughter – Pandora of course – to grow up around family, the business has had to rebuild from the ground up once more. Greg is now a car mechanic once again and the hard work cultivating relationships with buyers and sellers has had to begin anew.
There are several items on the Pandora’s Box ‘most wanted’ list. Heather is keeping an eye out for real lobotomy tools, an extremely difficult catch. Human skeletons also remain top of the agenda.
The pair certainly see their shop as an extension of their respective hobbies. Heather runs regular taxidermy 101 classes in which people spend seven hours learning how to skin and stuffing their first rats.
Like everything else the shop offers this appeals to a niche but dedicated market. A recent session included a couple who flew over from Spain just to delicately apply scalpels to deceased rodents.
Explaining the allure Heather said: “I think it’s taking something that’s dead and instead of just burying it, it’s bringing it back to life and making it something you can enjoy.”
The demands of the business greatly impact the day job. Heather concedes “the hobby and the business are one.”
On weekends instead of taking the time off to watch Strictly Come Dancing the Bowsers can often be found at car boot sales hunting for Victorian medical equipment or diaphonised animals.
My first taxidermy… in 10 simple steps
Wood wool (finely shaven)
Needle and thread
Small glass eyes (marbles will do)
A dead rat
1. Lay the rat on its on its stomach and make a long clean cut in the back
2. Slowly peal the skin away from the carcass until it comes off much like a onesie
3. Rip off the arms and delicately remove the skull
4. Remove any remaining flesh off the skin
5. Mould the skull with clay
6. Put the glass eyes into the moulded skull
7. Wrap string around the wood wool to form a structure that will fit inside the skin
8. Stitch the skin up again after inserting the wood wool figure
9. Pin the skull to the body
10. Dress up your rat however you want. Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde fame is a recommended first choice.
Charles Manson’s hair
Sometimes Pandora’s Box sails very close to the wind in terms of what is acceptable, even for a shop that specialises in human bones, and vintage speculums. Customers can walk out with a lock of hair from the notorious serial killers Charles Manson or Glen Rogers.
In Heather’s words: “Everybody has a line, but I’m not quite sure where exactly ours is.”
Even the taxidermy has sparked some public ire. At least once a fortnight a member of the public walks in demanding an explanation on how the various taxidermy pieces are obtained.
In May of this year a woman stormed into the shop raving at Heather that she deserves to die for selling stuffed animals.
On these occasions Heather takes pains to explain that she is a member of the UK Guild of Taxidermists and would never engage in legally dubious or unethical trading.
Pandora’s Box is not a mass market business. It draws its clientele mainly from the goth subculture and doesn’t compromise on its niche to broaden its appeal.
Both Greg and Heather are friendly and inviting. Heather teaches taxidermy in the same matter-of-fact style a baker approaches cake-baking lessons.
Their young daughter Pandora spends her time catching spiders and crafting rather than glued to her tablet or TV.
When so much retailing involves mass-produced items sold through high street mega-chains, the fact that York has an independent business catering to an incredibly niche market provides a welcome relief.
After all, ‘all human remains are handled with dignity and respect’.