Oh, Come All Ye Curious -- 100-Year-Olde Shop A Big Success, Definitely Not A Dowdy Centenarian
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
It makes you wonder how they entertain out-of-towners in, say, Kansas City, or Buffalo, or Minneapolis.
Where else but Seattle can visitors examine mummies, admire shrunken heads, see the Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice, stock up on fake dog-doo and spend 25 cents to watch a sailor doll laugh maniacally - all under one roof?
Credit the late J.E. "Daddy" Standley, founder of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, which is getting ready to mark its 100th birthday.
Now in the height of the busy tourist season, the Pier 54 shop's owners are also cooking up plans for an open house, visits by dignitaries and possible entertainment on the Oct. 8 centennial, a day Mayor Paul Schell recently proclaimed "Ye Olde Curiosity Shop Day."
All this for an establishment that, records indicate, made a mere 25 cents its first three days of operation.
"My grandfather was a curio-lover first and a businessman second," shrugs Joe James, 75, who began sweeping floors there at the age of 12 and is now company president.
Generations of visitors and natives alike recall the shop as one of the defining Seattle tourist experiences. When you come to Seattle, you go up the Space Needle, you eat and chips at Ivar's, you ride a ferry and you drop a few coins at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop.
Theodore Roosevelt visited there. So did John Wayne. Ditto for Charlie Chaplin, Sylvester Stallone and Katharine Hepburn.
There's never been an admission charge. The theory is that the exhibits, ranging from historic artifacts to hunting trophies to natural wonders, would draw in customers who would then buy Seattle souvenirs, Indian art, assorted novelties and gag gifts.
And while they're there, visitors pump coins into contraptions that tell their fortunes, play music, stamp the store's logo onto a penny and display still photos from old movies.
"It's Disneyland without the rides," said Karla Linder of Shelton, in the shop this week with her wide-eyed grandson, Brent Kimzey, 14, of Anchorage.
Linder, 55, made her first visit a half-century ago. Over the decades, she has never shaken the image of the baseball-size shrunken heads from South America in a display case at the back of the shop.
"Even as an adult, I'm amazed that there's a process in which they can take your head off your shoulders and make it into something that size," she said.
For Brenda Buckley Chavez of San Mateo, Calif., however, the draw will always be the mummified remains of a man and woman, nicknamed Sylvester and Sylvia.
She and her husband invariably include a stop at the shop when they visit Seattle every few years, and this week they brought daughter Anica, 10, and son Daniel, 8, by for a first visit.
Anica agreed that Sylvester is a curiosity. "It's neat because he looks so real," she said, although his crooked, grimy teeth are a bit on the icky side.
Sylvester, acquired by the shop in 1955, is believed to be the body of a shooting victim from the late 1800s, dehydrated and preserved by the sands of an Arizona desert.
Over the years, he has become the informal symbol of the shop and waves a hello from one of the store's newest features, a World Wide Web page.
Visitors can draw their own conclusion about another of the shop's oddities, a mermaid which legend says was shot by a fisherman on Hood Canal in 1900 but which looks suspiciously like the handiwork of a clever taxidermist.
"We've never represented it as being real, but we get a lot of comments on it," said James.
As amazing as anything on display is the fact this strange business has lasted as a family enterprise, now in the fourth generation and grooming a fifth.
James, the third-generation owner, has turned over day-to-day operation to his son and daughter-in-law, Andy and Tammy James. Now their sons, Neal, 9, and Justin, 7, are showing an interest, though Neal isn't sure if he'll run the store or race motorcycles.
It may be hard to believe in this jumble of stuff from floor to ceiling, but the shop owes its beginnings to a clean desk.
When its founder was a 9-year-old schoolboy in Ohio, J.E. Standley had the neatest desk in his classroom, an achievement the teacher rewarded with a book called "Wonders of Nature."
Images on its pages ignited a passion. "He roamed the riverbanks after that, finding tools, arrowheads, artifacts, fossils, whatever," said Joe James.
After running a store in Denver, Standley moved to Seattle in 1899 because doctors said the Rocky Mountain altitude was hard on his wife's high blood pressure.
"He fell in love with this area and was one of its biggest boosters," James said.
Standley built a large home in West Seattle, a one-acre estate he called "Totem Place." Sightseeing buses were drawn to the site for its collection of totem poles, whale bones, giant clamshells, a Japanese teahouse and miniature log cabin.
But Standley's first concern was always the curiosity shop.
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