Driving along Weston Road, a quiet area northwest of downtown Toronto, it's easy to trip out on the weird nostalgia that comes with seeing so many old storefronts, restaurants, and churches with obscure signs. But there's one place where the vibe is most appropriate—an old building where the door is closed and the blinds are pulled. There is no sign here except for a little paper stuck in the window that reads: "The Skull Store."
I'm at the Skull Store to talk to the two brothers who run the shop, Jake Ouimette and Ben Lovatt. They're the only dealers of human skulls in Canada.
Walking into the store is almost a sensory overload. Skulls and bones of almost every kind line the walls, cases, and shelves. The place smells like a distinct mix of cleaning products and musty attic.
As I find out, that's exactly what it is—Ouimette and Lovatt specialize in cleaning and selling fresh bones of animals as well as dealing with ancient artifacts, sometimes human.
"We don't have a lot of human things, because they go fast," says Lovatt while leading me to the tall wooden case by the cash register. In it are two heads; one is from a medical cadaver and the other is an ancient decorated skull from the Dayak tribe of Borneo.
I ask them how difficult it is to obtain these skulls and how it's even legal.
"It's actually relatively easy for us," says Lovatt, explaining that most animals require a CITES permit, which is a regulatory body that controls international animal trade. "Humans are the only primates on that planet that don't require a permit."
I ask them if a man came in the store tomorrow, terminally ill, and says that after he dies he would like to donate his skeleton... And they both shake their heads before I can finish.
"A fresh one is a whole different game," says Lovatt.
Due to the number of bans and rules on the trade of these specimens, most of what they deal in are antique pieces from private collections.
Lovatt explains that there are still companies that deal in cleaning and preparing medical cadavers in the United States through official avenues. In Canada, however, the rules are very strict around the making of fresh medical specimens.
"We're very protective of that stuff," he says.
The medical skull on the shelf is $1,000 [$750 USD]. Lovatt says that it was from an elderly person, so the lower jaw had already degraded and someone had fitted a new set of teeth on it. He says generally, people who buy skulls are looking for unaltered specimens, so that's why it's cheaper.
An unaltered specimen goes for approximately $1,200 [$900 USD].
Some customers are artists looking for subjects to paint, or paint on. The brothers provide coyote skulls for one tattoo shop in Orangeville that does an annual art show.
Other customers are collectors, zoos, and museums. Bones from The Skull Store have even been used as props for film shoots. The brothers provided the crew of Suicide Squad with animal skeletons while they were shooting in Toronto. The brothers don't know how they were used in the movie, "but we're excited to see," says Lovatt.
"We've had stuff in Vikings and Planet of the Apes and all that stuff as well," he says.
Sometimes, full human skeletons come through the store.
One skull they have is a 1940s medical skull covered with labels and writing. The wife of a doctor brought the skull into the store after her husband passed away. Those old bones were just sitting around, collecting dust. The brothers put the specimens on the museum side of the shop, they are not for sale.
"This," says Ouimette, pulling a large board of skulls off the top of the cabinet, "is probably the craziest thing we have."
The piece is a collection of two boar skulls with a human skull fixed to the board in the center—a 100-year-old cannibal battle trophy from the Philippines. The entire piece is charred black, and still smells of campfire.
The warriors had slain the man whose skull is now in the center. As part of the ritual, they cooked him with the two boars. They believed that in order to channel the spirit of the killed warrior they needed to eat the flesh. The Skull Store also has shrunken heads, elongated heads, and even the hands of mummies.
The pair got into the bone business after working in the exotic pet rescue. Lovatt says that they acquired some of the rarest animals on the planet and when the animals died, throwing out the carcasses seemed like such a waste.
One day one of the world's rarest crocodiles showed up in a tub on Lovatt's front door.
"It was on the edge of death and was too far gone to save. We wanted to do something to preserve it," he says. "There's a legacy they can continue to have if they're preserved."
Ouimette was working as a contractor before teaming up with Lovatt. He was sick of getting hurt on the job and was looking for something new.
When they became business partners, "we never would have guessed it in a billion years," says Lovatt.
Their families were a little bit skeptical at first, but after the brothers were able to show their family the store, they began to understand their passion. Lovatt says after the exotic animal rescue, the Skull Store was not a total shock to the family. If anyone was going to pick a weird job, it would be them.
"Dad was happy the gators I wrangle these days are dead," says Lovatt, with a chuckle.
The brothers have purchased private collections of bones as well as the contents from a museum that was shut down in a school in North York. Many of these pieces are placed on one side of the store, the museum side. They are not for sale.
"People bring their kids in here on weekends," says Lovatt, explaining that there is an education and preservation aspect to their business.
Lovatt speaks passionately about each specimen in the shop. Aside from human rarities, the store has a wide variety of animal bones, dinosaur bones, and other artifacts.
"We have a real raptor's egg for sale," says Lovatt.
He points out an egg, slightly larger than a mango, in the case beside the front door.
"Oviraptor from Mongolia, about 75 million years old," he says, explaining that it was dug out of the ground over 100 years ago and traded internationally through private collections before coming to them.
They supply bones and artifacts to both the ROM and the Toronto Zoo, as well as clean the skeletons of deceased zoo animals.
One recent project was the skull of a young elephant that passed away in the zoo. Her massive skull sits on a cart in the back room of the store.
In the same room is a massive tank that holds a lizard. Psycho is Ouimette's pet Nile Monitor. When Ouimette is cleaning bones, Psycho loses it in his tank, waiting for scraps. He runs around and presses his face against the glass, excited for a nibble of exotic jerky.
They lead me into the far back room, where all of the cleaning goes on. The smell of sweet, acrid decaying flesh is highly concentrated in the small space.
I try and pull my shirt over my nose as I peer into one of the fish tanks full of bugs. They use beetles to break down the flesh left on the bones. Inside the tank, half-cleaned beaver bones are scattered about, covered in flesh-eating beetles. I get on a ladder to see properly. The smell gets stronger.
The small room has a counter and a stove. Under the counter are Rubbermaid bins brimming with partially cleaned whale bones.
The brothers made a trip out to Nova Scotia last spring and collected the remains of a 14-foot pilot whale that had washed up on shore. They drove back to Toronto in a Dodge Grand Caravan, filled with rotting whale. I cringed imagining the smell.
"Febreze made a few bucks that day," says Lovatt.
A few large soup pots sit on the stovetop. Sometimes they have to cook the flesh off the bones.
"Bleaching and boiling are no-nos in our industry," says Lovatt, who explains that they try and avoid those two practices as it makes the bones very brittle, and in time they'll crumble and disintegrate.
Ouimette opens up a cooler filled with yellow soapy water. Inside is a beaver head, soaking to soften the flesh.
"Do you mind picking it out for me?" I ask.
He grimaces and gets a soup strainer. The head still has its tongue, jaw meat, and eyeball set far in the skull. It's clear that there is a long way to go before it's ready for sale, a steal at $85.
Follow Alexandra Heck on Twitter.