BERKELEY – I stumbled upon some human bones the other day. No, I was not out in "secluded" woods. No, I did not alert the authorities to what overheated TV news anchors always call a "grim discovery." And, no, I did not freak out in the least.
Rather, I was skulking around an eccentrically trendy shop on Solano Avenue here called the Bone Room, which dubs itself a "natural history store." And what, dare I say, is more natural than the very bones that allow our corporeal selves to function, rather than flop about like so many dollops of Jell-O?
Sure, there are scads of skeletons from the animal kingdom for purchase here: camels, river otters, warthogs, giraffes – you know, the usual roadkill suspects.
But it is the Bone Room's extensive collection of human remains, everything from the coccyx to the ulna, that draws the curious. Some might want to attach the adverb "morbidly" to the above sentence. But, really, after chatting up customers and clerks, I found that the adjectival phrase "healthy curiosity" seems more apt.
Once you get over the initial squeamishness and the nervous need to make stupid puns ("Man, these items will set you back an arm and a leg "), it's actually quite fascinating to study the human anatomy stripped of all adornments.
Looking at a clavicle, for instance, makes you wonder why there aren't more fractures involving this bone. It looks so insubstantial, slim and somewhat frail, as if you could snap it in half. I personally was intrigued with a specimen that has caused me much pain and many visits to the chiropractor – the sacrum. How lumpy it looked, how porous. No wonder my back aches so.
Some bones sit in jars and are available to fondle and manipulate – I saw a woman twirl a fibula like a baton – but I was slightly disappointed that actual skulls are kept behind glass. Somehow, it's just not the same reciting Hamlet's lament, "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest " with a fake skull.
OK, so it's fun to browse and all, but who's gonna part with 200 bucks (I almost said "bones") for the aforementioned sacrum?
Lots of folks, according to owner Ron Cauble, who opened the Bone Room in 1987.
"Artists are some of our of biggest customers," Cauble said. "We made a big sale to Damien Hirst. He bought over a quarter-million dollars of human bones that we sent to him a few years ago. My (store) manager even went over to London to see how it all was becoming art; he hadn't done anything yet.
"We have another artist on the East Coast who makes a ton of works out of human bones. There's a huge fascination among artists. But we sell a lot to universities. We sold a bunch to a (man) who works at Hickam Air Force Base (in Hawaii) and is involved in MIAs and POWs.
"Some religious people buy them. No voodoo stuff. There are people studying anatomy who buy. Then there are people who just wanted to have a skull for whatever reason. I don't ask."
Combing over the specimens one recent day was Brian Carrier, an artisan guitar maker, and Gretchen Nation, an artist, both from Oregon City, Ore.
"This place is fascinating," Nation said.
"But there's no mysticism to it for us," Carrier added.
"No, no creepy factor at all," Nation said. "It's just another design element."
Carrier purchased some calcaneus specimens – the heel bone – to use for the knobs on a guitar he's building.
"I'm looking at some other bones to use for (the guitar's) bridges," he added.
Hmm, can we interest you in some choice ribs, or maybe a mandible, sir?
Nation sought bones for jewelry.
"I picked up some fingers, little bones," she said. "They are cute. They'll be earrings and necklaces."
Lest the Oregon couple worry about the legality of possessing human remains, Cauble was quick to point out that federal law has no bone to pick (sorry) with the practice. However, he added, three states (New York, Tennessee and Georgia) have statutes prohibiting the import or export of human remains across state lines.
Really? I wondered. Can you have a skeleton in your closet and avoid the long arm of the law?
"Absolutely," he said.
Of course, American Indian bones are covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But apparently carting around a bag of Aunt Blanche's bones is fine and dandy.
The Bone Room, like Skulls Unlimited in Oklahoma City and Evolution in New York, puts a high price on these body parts, which its website says mostly come from private individuals. That's because the bone business is drying up. Most of the human remains used to be imported from India, until the country banned the practice in the mid-1980s. China was a rich source until 2008, when it outlawed the export of bones.
Cauble notes on the Bone Room's website that prices have risen because supply has dwindled. So, an intact "normal" skull (as opposed to pathological – e.g., diseased skull) of a male will set you back $1,700, though you can go as low at $900 if you don't mind that it's missing 29 teeth. If you must have a child's skull, you'll fork over $3,500.
Much more reasonable is a fibula ($75) or foot phalanges and metatarsals ($10).
Cauble will sell to anyone, but he really wants his patrons to leave their squeamishness at the door and appreciate the form and function of the human bone.
"I hope you can learn to look at an object with more than one view," he said. "If you're only seeing something that's dead, then you're not seeing the evolutionary connection, or the morphology, the chemistry, the negative space, all the artistic possibilities.
"All those things are blocked from you if you just see bones."
THE BONE ROOM
1569 Solano Ave., Berkeley
(510) 526-5252, www.boneroom.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; Closed Sunday-Monday
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.