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Home | News | Gallery+Sound+Story: El Paso’s Very Own ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’

Gallery+Sound+Story: El Paso’s Very Own ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’

“We joke that we have everything but space,” says Clay Baron.  Space, for Clay, it’s a rare commodity indeed.

Beatrix Potter, Robert Edmond Grant, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all had one thing in common: Cabinets of Curiosity.

Cabinets of Curiosity, also known as Cabinets of Wonder and Wonder-Rooms, were huge collections of items belonging to natural history, geology, ethnography, even religious relics. These were amazing rooms, with amazing collections. These Cabinets (and the word “cabinet”
described a room rather than a physical cabinet sitting in a corner) predated museums and public collections.

So, why do I bring this up? Well, I bring it up because El Paso has one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Cabinets of Curiosity. Have you ever wanted to see, and own a skeleton in a coffin? Pickled pig brains (and I am told that they are not the brains of some politician, sadly). Ever wanted to own a first-class relic of a saint? There is only one place in town that can make that happen.

Dave’s Loan at 216 El Paso Street is El Paso’s very own Cabinet of Curiosity.

Walking in the door of Dave’s is like walking into another world. Almost anything and everything can be found at Dave’s. On the off chance what you are looking for is not there, just wait a few weeks because it will walk through their front door.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been visiting Dave’s. Larry Baron, who used to run the shop, taught me a great deal about how to identify antiques for when I visit estate sales and those were skills that helped me when I was living in New York City.

Dave’s has also been the place where I have found, and bought, some amazing conversational pieces.  I recently sat down with Clay Baron, of Dave’s, who shared its amazing story.

“They had a surplus store-slash- general mercantile shop,” Clay says of his grandparents, who originally opened the family business in 1949. Their first location was across the street from where they are now, in a hotel that has long since been torn down.

“Then,” he says, recalling the history of the business, “the Montgomery building came up for sale, and they bought it.” The shop moved into 216 El Paso Street, with the other half of the building, 218, being leased out to different business over the years.

So, what is the most interesting thing about running a shop like Dave’s Loan?

“We have a reputation,” said Clay. “We get some fun stuff, fun people, we are in a fun place.”

I remember, as far as fun stuff goes, they had Pancho Villa’s trigger finger. It’s odd, but you don’t know how much I want that trigger finger! Who wouldn’t?

“As a side note,” says Clay, “we’ve had a lot more interest in Nazi stuff.” That is one thing the store does have, a collection of Nazi and Third Reich items on offer.

I sort of have mixed feelings about those items, and they’re being for sale, but I do see the necessity of having them so that one never forgets the depravity man can sink to.

“It’s not neo-Nazis,” says Clay of those who come into the store, seeking such items. “Metalheads, a lot of the military, the privates on Bliss have been coming around putting things on layaway.”

I had to ask if he thought the people buying the Nazi items had such leanings. He doesn’t think so. But, I’m also not going to say we don’t have people with such beliefs in town. There was a time that Clay and I were walking downtown, and we found a photo of a bunch of people, in El Paso, giving the Nazi salute. Truly an odd thing to find.

Clay and his family are Jewish. Being Jewish myself, I wouldn’t want any of the Nazi items around my home. Of course, I was going to ask him how they began taking in such items.

“When grandpa dies, a lot of people don’t want it in their house,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s evil, or worth money. You can’t put it on eBay, so they bring it in. We have a reputation, and we are one of the very few people to deal with this.”

There is a use, for these items. It is a tangible piece of a very horrid moment in history. Maybe,having these, seeing these will help one to remember that if we are not vigilant, it could happen again.

In the same small case that holds quite a bit of the Nazi items, there is a skull.

It’s perfect, as far as skulls go, except for the bullet hole in it. My first fear, it was from the same era, from World War II.

“I’ve been told that it’s Asian, from the Khmer Rouge,” said Clay. “It’s probably a fourteen-year- old boy.”

The age, they nationality, this is what Clay has been told. If it is from the Khmer Rouge and their reign of hate, then it is another tangible reminder of what we, as humans, can do to one another.

There is more to Dave’s than just items from dark moments in history.  What’s the oddest thing that’s walked in the door?

“It changes,” said Clay. “There was Pancho Villas finger; there was a guy that sold us his glass eye.”

You read that right, a glass eye. Clay said the guy walked in, pops it out, and pawns it!

“There’s a mummified cat,” Clay said with a laugh. “It’s a tradition, I think, with the Chinese, to put a cat in the walls of a new house.”

Then, there is a cane. A simple, innocuous item that I saw on their Facebook page. That cane is what pushed me to visit with Clay and want to share his store and story with you.

The cane was owned by John Henry Selman. “He was only here for two and a half years. He was a cattle rustler in Central Texas,” says Clay.

“He was rustling cattle with a lawman, doing outlaw stuff. When the lawman was caught, Selman went on the run.”

Selman spent ten years in Chihuahua, and after the Civil War discovered that he could come back to the United States and not be arrested or hung.

“He came here, to town, during the best era,” Clay says. “He shot Bass Outlaw, the best name for an outlaw.” It is a great name for an outlaw. “He was shot in one of the nicer whorehouses in El Paso,” says Clay of an old whorehouse that used to be on Mesa.

“He also shot Hardin” speaking of John Wesley Hardin.

John Wesley Hardn, the many who once shot someone for simply snoring was shot by and killed by John Henry Selman. John’s cane now sits at Dave’s Loan.

There is so much history to be found at Dave’s. Each item they sell tells a story; sometimes those stories are known, like the Selman’s cane, or the skull. Other times, the story is simply a mystery.

 

“You find something new each time,” and that’s the truth. You can spend hours in Dave’s and still not be able to take it all in at one shot.

Now, let me end this with a bit of dark humor. Something that had Clay and me laughing. The skull, the one from the Khmer Rouge, a mummy, and more was the trigger for a call to 911.

“He said we were killing people,” says Clay, “and selling their body parts.”

This man, Victor, who made the call, said that they were selling a murdered person. Said he was selling a human skull, from a person who was murdered.

It’s the oddest call I have ever heard and had me laughing all the way through it. (Give it a listen – you can find the 911 call here)

 

Dave’s is a unique place. A Cabinet of Curiosities in Downtown El Paso. A museum that is for sale, that’s Dave’s.

About Steven Cottingham

Steven Cottingham is an artist, poet (haiku, tanka, senryu) as well as a photographer. Growing up, he wanted to be a columnist, as well as photojournalist. Life, and poor decision, led him down a different path. Today, Steven is chasing those dreams. He is currently working on his next book, as well as starting a small poetry journal. You may visit Steven, online, at www.StevenCottinghamPhotography.com

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