If you’ve driven down Yale Street lately, you might have noticed an odd, spooky building has just opened up. This is Wilde Collection, which owners Lawyer Douglas and Tyler Zottarelle have envisioned as something Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde might have put together if they’d ever gone into the business of selling items instead of penning tales. Inside the walls of the store is the most bizarre and magical heap of oddities, antiques, art and pure strangeness to be had in the entire city.
The main room is dominated mostly by a real human skeleton elaborately dressed in an ornate uniform and held in a lighted casket. As Douglas and Zottarelle gave me a guided tour, they explained that the man in the box was originally part of an Oddfellows ceremony. Dating back to the 18th century, the Oddfellows are a fraternal order similar to the Freemasons, but a little more dramatic and whimsical since they were apparently known for putting on elaborate Biblical plays. The order was founded as an early social welfare organization aimed at helping poor communities with no social services. They’re in decline, but still exist today.
The skeleton was part of their initiation ritual. New members were expected to face it as a kind of memento mori, a reminder that death comes to us all.
Wilde Collection is stuffed to the walls with things like this but doesn’t feel crowded. Various items are stacked upon each other and both upon antique furniture, but the result is elegant rather than haphazard. It’s clear a keen eye was employed to make sure things didn’t become gaudy.
The room most likely to raise hackles is the enormous taxidermy showcase. Lions, cheetahs, tigers, zebras, rhinos and hippos all face you as you enter, and the lighting has been cleverly changed to more closely resemble that of a baking savanna sun. Most of Wilde Collection’s menagerie comes from big game hunts that happened in the 1960s, and the shop doesn't buy recently poached animals. Though it’s partly sad to see such majestic creatures inert, it’s also something special to be that close to a lion in the open even if it is dead and stuffed.
Though there are some legitimate biological specimens and organs to be found in jars, many of the macabre bone art on display is handcrafted by Douglas, who claims to be descended from curanderas and voodoo witch doctors. Based on a terrible dream he once had about a man-eating plant, he created a huge tree out of a cow’s spine, augmenting it with deadly mandibles made of raccoon jaws. Another personal favorite was his Audrey III, a small Venus flytrap skeleton.
Secure in glass cabinets was predictably a selection of medical paraphernalia. Most of what was on display was your basic organ models for teaching, but there were more than a few items to give anyone pause. The shop's full stock isn’t on the floor yet, but Wilde Collection deals in quack medicines. The one they showed me was a well-polished set of anal dilators. These, the box lid promised, would cure me of ailments ranging from asthma to baldness to eczema. All you had to do was gradually increase the circumference of your sphincter and health would be yours.
Not everything was as whimsical. You could also pick up a set of abortion tools, gleaming and unnerving.
Most of the mood, though, is lighthearted even if dark. I was invited to examine a cyclops head on the counter, to the right of the shop's incredibly creepy animated portrait of ghosts and to the left of a pair of fighting scorpions. Douglas asked me to guess what had served as the base for the cyclops, and after some thought, I was told that yes, I was correct. It was a goat’s back end. On another table there was an even sillier joke, Michonne and her two shackled walkers from The Walking Dead, but crafted out of three dead mice.
There’s life in Wilde Collection, though. Where a window should be is instead a small area where Zottarelle raises doves, and in a strange, bright alley adorned with skeletons in armor and Rob Zombie-style pop art painting are two myna birds. It’s weirdly incongruent yet complementary sections like this that make Wilde Collection feel less like a store and more like the world’s smallest, oddest theme park. If you told me next month that this place had added a classic haunted house dark ride and magic shows, I wouldn’t bat an eye. They’d fit like a glove.
Setting aside all the things that are morbid, what makes Wilde Collection something extraordinary is that even these objects hold a beauty made all the more bright by their darkness. I was moved deeply getting to hold examples of Victorian hair art, in which flowers and watchbands are weaved from loved ones’ tresses to create artworks. One that stood out was a watchband woven for a widower from his deceased wife’s locks.
Or take the clown doll that smiles down from a cabinet. The story the owners told was that an old woman had recently died and they had attended her estate sale. Before she passed on, she would tell her family that she could hear a bell in the attic, though no one else could. Curious, Zottarelle looked in the attic and found a small crib with the clown doll in it. The bell the old woman had heard was the bell on the end of his hat, presumably tinkling when the house would settle.
The most amazing item, though, was a piece that Douglas made that had recently sold. It was a doll from another estate sale, but Douglas had also found with the doll a heartbreaking letter from a mother to her dead daughter about how much she loved her. Using the hollowed torso of the doll, Douglas created a scene of the child’s funeral with the child herself looking down from Heaven represented in another compartment in the doll’s head. I’d never heard of anything like it for sale in Houston before, and there's not likely to be another shop like Wilde Collection that would dare to sell it.
Wilde Collection is open now at 1446 Yale. You can take a video tour shot by Jef below.