In a small shop in the Solano shopping district of North Berkeley, Abigail Guerdat is showing me a cabinet of human bones. Clavicles and skulls of all sizes are displayed on the shelves surrounding us, but my attention is ultimately drawn toward the large creature — or at least part of it — hanging above us.
“Oh, that’s Brambles,” Guerdat explains as she points to the large taxidermied goat head. “He belonged to the bike shop owner across the street.”
After 18 months of working at the Bone Room, UC Berkeley senior Guerdat can identify almost every item as she walks me through the natural history store.
Rows of framed insects — mostly butterflies and beetles — are mounted to the walls, scattered among animal skulls and taxidermied heads. Dried bats, warthog tusks, feathers and a large assortment of fossils are organized into tidy drawers. Water buffalo teeth and some of the shop’s smaller oddities are neatly displayed in fishbowl-type jars along shelves.
It’s $5 for a pack of cat vertebrae, $10 for the complete rearticulated tail. If you’re more of a dog person, canine skulls, sternums and rib bones are also available for purchase.
“There’s no reason we can’t recycle and honor the animal after it has passed,” Guerdat says. “It’s Berkeley. Everyone recycles here.”
While some of these specimen date back centuries, most of the animals in the shop are former pets, such as Brambles the goat, that come from the personal homes and farms of Bay Area residents. Domestic animal parts, such as dog teeth and rabbit feet, pack into rows of open jars.
The Bone Room’s pet-preparation process typically consists of cleaning the dead pet’s bones and returning them to the owners in the form they prefer, be it a fully assembled skeleton or individual body parts.
The natural history store offers a variety of services, including insect spreading and mounting, taxidermy, fossil restoration and bone rearticulation and repair.
When Ron Cauble first opened the Bone Room in 1987, it was just a room within his other business, the East Bay Vivarium. When the amphibian emporium’s animals died, Cauble, an eager natural historian, would clean, articulate and present the bones in the back room.
As this exhibit gained popularity, Cauble decided to open a separate store for the ever-increasing collection of bones and reptile skins. Guerdat says he aimed to create a community space for intellectual thought within the Bone Room — a place where natural history and oddities could be explored by all types of people, not just academics. Pointing to a stack of science and natural history magazines on the table, Guerdat tells me Cauble would frequently post on the shop window articles about new findings.
Cauble died in 2014 but is survived by his wife, Diana Mansfield, who continues to subscribe to his favorite science magazines, displaying them in the store for customers to read. As the current owner and head manager, Mansfield often embarks on cross-country trips to mineral and insect shows in search of new merchandise for the shop.
Despite its bizarre inventory, the Bone Room draws in a surprisingly diverse clientele. When the California Academy of Sciences first opened, the Bone Room provided the museum with pinned insects to use in its billboards and advertisements.
Artists and prop masters flock to the store to rent items for set designs and visual displays. Artist Damien Hirst actually purchased a human cranium from the shop when he was working on his series of diamond-encrusted skulls.
As we walk past the mounted insects, another Bone Room employee helps a customer decide which frame of beetle wings she should give as a wedding gift.
“Our customers have a personal relationship, a friendship, with The Bone Room itself,” Mansfield said in an email. “It’s partly the wonderful employees that The Bone Room attracts, but it’s also the personality of the store itself.”
After 25 years in the natural history business, the Bone Room has formed longstanding relationships with fossil dealers, entomologists, shell dealers and natural-craft-product dealers.
A large portion of the Bone Room’s merchandise is donations received from a number of sources, including professors, museums and research labs. Two Ifugao headhunter skulls are showcased behind the glass of the human-bone cabinet. These artifacts were donated to the Bone Room by late UC Berkeley anthropology professor Sherwood Washburn.
For all its oddity, the Bone Room seems to have tapped into a community’s curiosity for the macabre shadows of nature. In opening a door to the areas of the natural world often pushed toward the back rooms of museums, the Bone Room has created a space of ongoing exploration and learning.
It has also created a space where you can buy a dog tail on the cheap.
Photos by Michael Drummond