Entering the red, high, vaulted space along the eastern drag of NW Thurman Street in the Northwest District's Slabtown neighborhood would seem rather ordinary, save for "The Sarge," an imposingly tall coat of arms that guards the entry to The Freakybuttrue Peculiarium and Museum, which quietly and inauspiciously opened three months ago on Tax Day.
Cynically, its interior design resembles a curious mishmash of the stuff one coveted as a child. But to a child, and to the children within us all, it is a spectacle of mirth, joy and wonder.
It is, at once, a trip to the candy shop, a place (soon) to belly up for a beer, and the manifestation of the forgotten memories we once carved from our young imaginations.
Lasers dart along the walls, and Vaudevillian piano roll music fills the air. There's an exhibit of an alien autopsy and another of Al Capone's vault. It is home to both "Portland's Grandest Kaleidoscope" and a towering replica of what Bigfoot just might look like were he smote, stuffed and displayed.
No business in Portland gives better head than The Freakybuttrue Peculiarium.
There are toy robots, heads in jars, heads in birdcages and animal skulls locked inside plastic boxes. There are whoopee cushions and plastic vomit, pizza, hot dogs and ice cream sundaes topped with—no lie—freeze-dried mealworms and stingerless scorpions. In fact, the Peculiarium sells a variety of edible bugs, including larvettes and crickettes, which come in three flavors: sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, and bacon and cheese.
This is what it would feel like if you were to go to the drive-in to watch a B-movie in which Riff Raff, Magenta and Willy Wonka gather for a slumber party to tell one another ghost stories lovingly penned, with the most sincere campiness, by Jean Shepherd.
In a way, there's almost nothing that the Peculiarium is not, which begs two questions:
Why? And, in our present chilly economic climate, How?
"We want to celebrate all that weird stuff we've always loved," says Lisa Freeman, who, with fellow Portlanders Mike Wellins and Eric Bute, and with the help of a mysterious silent partner and a cast of tool-savvy and film industry friends, made, in a rather short period of time, the whole thing happen.
Bigfoot hovers near the entrance while a two-faced porcelain doll hides in the back for your bi-polar pleasure.
The trio, she says grew up on "cheesy movies, dumb jokes, weird stuff, sci-fi, supernatural, twisted and dark and even historical stuff."
"Some people aren't amused by Bigfoot, and things in jars, or aliens or vampires," Freeman says, "but we are, and it seems like a lot of people feel the same way, judging by our customers' enthusiasm."
And it's for those customers, especially the younger ones, that the Peculiarium, in all its tactile pleasures, exists.
"I think we also think that all the web stuff has reached a super saturation level, with Netflix, and YouTube and all the digital stuff," Freeman explains. "[W]e hope people might want to go and do something practical and walk around and explore with their senses instead of a click of a mouse."
But under a certain light, giving future generations an appreciation of such nostalgic things sounds like the work of nonprofits or, put plainly, parents, not businesses.
"It's hard to tell if we'll make money or not," says Freeman, "[S]o far, so good, but we're still learning, and no one is under the illusion we're going to get rich selling fake dog poop. Our stuff is cheap, and we know it, but that's the point. We have all sorts of five-cent candy, which doesn't mean much to us financially, but it sure means a lot to a kid who just has a quarter. A family shouldn't have to get soaked to go have some ice cream, get a few gags and have a few laughs."
And they've got geography on their side. Despite the fact that Peculiarium is located less than a block from the NW 23rd promenade, the rent isn't crippling. Plus, it's off the beaten path, which bolsters its underground credibility.
Besides, Freeman explains, now that she, Wellins and Bute have the space, there's an awful lot of ways they can use it to make a profit, as long as all of those ways are fun.
They recently hosted a haunted Portland lecture, and they're sponsoring a sort-of car cruise they're calling Portland's First Annual Outrageous Vehicle Drive-by Contest, which happens near the end of July.
They've got a gallery where they display the works of some of Portland's less-praised, but equally talented artists. They're currently exhibiting the works of Portlander Ashley Armbruster, and in August they'll be displaying visual fantasies of Chase Velarde and the the Steampunk-inspired sculptures of rock guitarist Jennifer Batten.
Then there are the magic shows and classes put on by the Peculiarium's heavily-inked magician-in-residence, Reed McClintock.
And if all goes according to plan, they'll be sponsoring haunted Portland tours and trivia nights. Many, if not all, events may require a fee for admission.
We all scream when freeze-dried mealworms and scorpions are on our ice cream!
Of course, everyone knows that nothing makes haunted trivia taste better than a bottle of Oregon craft beer or, if one prefers, a glass of artisan Oregon wine. Pending the OLCC's processing and paperwork, local beers and wines should be available for you, courtesy of the Peculiarium, by the middle of August.
And it may be possible to enjoy your beverage al fresco. Freeman says work is currently being done to tame the building's fenced-in back lot, where there grows enough mint to make mojitos for every man, woman and child in the city. Their hope, she says, is to create a backyard patio where visitors can unwind outdoors when the weather's nice.
In the meantime, if anyone's in need of mint, Freeman says he or she should stop by for several complimentary sprigs. Or just show up for an ice cream sundae, or a slice of pizza, or a bottle of beer, or a magic show, or any other item or experience that falls under the broad category of et cetera.
The Peculiarium is located at 2234 NW Thurman Street in a red building once home to a grocery store, a printing shop and a flower shop. Their hours, subject to change, are currently Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Arrangements can be made to visit the space on off days by dialing 503.227.3164 or by dropping them a line online.