Paxton Gate's Bizarre Menagerie of Skulls, Oddities, and...Raccoon Penis?

A spooky-season visit to North Mississippi's den of taxidermy, Victoriana, and general weirdness

By Brooke Sahni October 24, 2014

Paxton Gate, the four-year-old store located on N Mississippi Ave., far surpasses a typical shop of odds and ends. It’s more like walking into a zoology museum taken over by a wild, ethereal sorceress: a carefully curated haven where occult apothecary meets a natural science aesthetic. Taxidermy animals range from zebra to rabbit to hippo. Frogs and exotic fish fill specimen jars. But even in the realm of the dead, Paxton Gate still manages to showcase undeniable beauty, with crystals, terrarium essentials, and remarkable artisan jewelry. Even the necklaces made from a raccoon penis bone manage a spellbinding wonder. Paxton Gate is an ode to the natural world, a place that owners Susan and Andy Brown are proud to share with Portland.

To start off with, what does Paxton Gate mean?

AB: Sir Joseph Paxton was the head gardener for the Duke of Devonshire. He did a number of different things. He was not only a gardener, but also an architect.

He revolutionized the making of green houses—glass structures—and he also made the Crystal Palace in London. So that’s the Paxton aspect of it. Gate came from the idea of keeping things open so things can grow.

So how did you get into such an unusual business?

SB: The first store started with Sean Quigley in San Francisco. We knew Sean when we lived in San Francisco and then we moved back to Portland and knew we wanted to start our own business. We also wanted something that didn’t feel saturated and would fit well with Portland. We had always loved Paxton Gate and thought it would be a great fit. My dad hunted and fished so I was around this stuff all the time—camping and nature. Both of our parents worked in education. The educational aspect is a big part of the store.

How has the store evolved since its opening in 2010?

AB & SB: When we first started, we would just laugh at ordering raccoon penis bones! Now there’s so many wonderful artists and creative people here in Portland that we have people coming to us a lot, giving us inspiration, bringing us beetles or snakes, or lizard bones. It’s just fun. You get the creativity from the artist. All the artwork on the walls is Pacific Northwest, aside from the taxidermy animals that are mostly vintage.

Where do the taxidermy heads come from? Do you place an order? I’d like a dozen hyena heads please?

AB & SB: (Laughs) You don’t order it. We’re talking to someone right now whose grandfather died and he has a huge collection. At this point people come to us. We have collectors whose passion it is to go out and find this stuff. We’re not into the killing of animals. It’s the history and art behind it that we find really fascinating. There’s a lion head that’s a piece by Rowland Ward, a famous taxidermist in the 1800’s—that’s pretty cool, to have a piece with so much history.

How would you describe Paxton Gate?

AB & SB: It focuses on a Victorian theme, but also highly educational. We get to talk to people about these animals. A lot of people bring their kids in. We have fossils that are 400 million years old—I mean, that’s neat. We’ve had people stand at the front door and yell to us, ‘how much does it cost to come in?’ (laughs) and we say, ‘come on in, it’s free!’ People think it’s a museum. We are the retail backbone but we learn new things all the time—we’ll have someone come in who maybe spent time in Ecuador and they’ll teach us how a certain insect behaves in nature. It’s fun. Our customers give us more insight that we can pass along to more people.

Weirdest, most memorable moment with a customer?

SB: (laughs) We’ve had hundreds. Once, right before Portlandia wanted to film their "Knot" episode with Jeff Goldblum here, some weird stuff started going on. First, this guy walks in and comes to the front door and is acting really weird, I mean, he looked really off. And he said, “my friends have been telling me about your store and I really want to come in, but I have a taxidermy phobia, but I want to come in anyway.” He was terrified if he walked around a corner there might be a grizzly head! He ended up buying a taxidermy piranha and didn’t want to look at it. He had us wrap it up while he looked away! Then his daughter came in and she also has the phobia! We’re like, ‘this can’t be real!’


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