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Original Issue


Say you've decided to redecorate the den, do away with that worn collection of New York Jet football helmets made into lamps, the beer company sign with a rippling trout stream, the homecoming programs, the pennants, buttons and ticket stubs to World Series games. Where could you find something, oh, say, "natural" and sportsmanlike? The place is called the Collector's Cabinet, with headquarters on New York's Madison Avenue and boutiques in some 250 department stores across the country. The store sells butterflies, shells, minerals, petrified wood, fossils and items of natural history ranging from the delicately beautiful to the profoundly bizarre.

For example, you might want to replace that 1939 World's Fair ashtray with a Chinese ox horn—eight inches of polished, manly naturalism for a mere $15. You can throw out the white-tail rack your uncle gave you when he moved into a trailer and pick up a Malaysian deer antler (naturally shed, of course) for $30, including black Lucite base.

How about a giant ostrich egg ($15) for the bar? Makes 300 gin fizzes. And you can stuff in the garbage that sailfish your buddy stole from a cocktail lounge in Sarasota. A modest and elegant sawfish beak from Taiwan ($25) will do as nicely and makes a unique letter opener, if you practice.

The store's biggest seller is a chambered nautilus shell ($5), which looks like a giant's ingrown toenail. "We ordered 20,000 last fall," says store founder and owner Jerome Eisenberg, "and they'll be gone soon." Eisenberg is quick to point out that his Nautilus pompilus is a common Philippine food item, not the endangered species of the French islands to the south.

Another popular den decoration is the vicious South American piranha. Its protruding lower jaw is filled with serrated teeth. Amazon natives gut the fish, put in glass eyes, touch up the belly with a more than lifelike orange and then lacquer the whole thing. When it is mounted on a wooden base, a varnished piranha ($10-$20) makes a breathtaking swizzle-stick holder.

Collector's Cabinet offers massive butterflies (up to $50) and fossils of fish and crustaceans (up to $750); a sea urchin ($10); a spiny blowfish ($3.50); and an alltime favorite of African hunters that authenticates any den, a brace of elephant dung beetles attractively displayed in a Lucite box ($10).

It may seem strange for a store to sell the castoff and dead—skin, bones, cartilage, shells—of the natural world, but at least these things are being reused, a cycle formerly reserved for aluminum pop-top cans. The beauty of a mounted cluster of giant acorn barnacles ($10) far outclasses a painting of a weeping clown, and using the shell of a chambered nautilus that was eaten with sweet and sour sauce in Manila gives one a better feeling toward such an item. Soon things may progress so far that we end up with stores selling puffs of cotton and wool in Lucite cases to folks dressed all in polyester; and who wouldn't want, in the year 2,000, a big, varnished beef steer on a walnut stand to grace the den?