Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Nature’s oddities for sale at the bar

This cat skeleton and muskrat skull grace the display cases at The Odditorium, a West Asheville bar that features a gallery of macabre artifacts.
This cat skeleton and muskrat skull grace the display cases at The Odditorium, a West Asheville bar that features a gallery of macabre artifacts.

I stepped into the darkness of The Odditorium in the waning days of a mountain vacation, and as I grabbed a stool at the bar I noticed a jar of Barbie doll heads floating inside what appeared to be a pickle jar.

I surveyed the other decorations and found a mummified bat inside a display case that also contained a bobcat skull, a skunk heart and a human finger – its bones tastefully arranged behind a frame.

The bar’s collection continued down the wall with an antique badge worn by a brothel inspector, an amateurishly stuffed coyote named Ricky and an authentic human skeleton named Kevin.

All of these items, incidentally, were for sale. The skunk heart goes for $30.

Then over in the corner, I discovered the minds behind this ghoulish assembly: co-owners Amy Marshall, a former bank manager, and Tamy Kuper, who until recently conducted HIV/AIDS research.

They were tired of being corporate, they explained. They wanted a home away from home. So on April Fool’s Day of 2013, they opened their West Asheville bar as a salute to lurid curiosity, offering artifacts both skewed and misunderstood.

“Things we like, obviously,” said Kuper. “We’re both a little dark.”

Though The Odditorium serves chiefly as a site for nighttime entertainment – punk bands, spelling bees, children’s art shows and Odd Comedy Tuesdays – it functions as an emporium for deranged objets d’art gathered by the pair of like-minded friends.

Kuper’s favorite piece is the bezoar, a petrified hair ball that is hundreds of years old and came from the stomach of a large mammal, most likely an elephant. In its time, it served as a sort of preventative device that a king might have a servant dip into his drink to absorb an assassin’s poison.

“It was revered more than gold,” she said.

To Marshall, the real prize is the lacrimosa, a glass vial that a person in mourning would use to collect teardrops. After a year’s worth of weeping, the glass vial is unstoppered and poured on a loved one’s tombstone.

Sometimes, Marshall explained, these items become so cherished that the owners weep to see them sold. This was the case for One-Eyed Willie: a white rabbit, who possessed a single eyeball, preserved inside a jar.

“He was here a long time,” Marshall sighed. “We were happy he found his forever home.”

I passed a pleasant hour in The Odditorium, enjoying a break from waterfalls, mountain peaks and other examples of nature’s more majestic work.

But the same force that drives the mountain streams and blasts the roots of trees also turns flesh to dust and body into bone – an observation I’ll offer with apologies to Dylan Thomas. And for that reason I recommend The Odditorium for anyone who appreciates nature’s freak show: its warts and its abnormal growths, its carcasses and its decay – all of it slowly and beautifully rotting.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818