No, you won’t find Hamlet here, searching a bin full of bones for poor Yorick’s skull, or Queequeg browsing the shelves for a complete set of vertebrae to help forecast the outcome of the Pequod’s next voyage. The rattlesnake spines, leaping-frog skeletons, elephant teeth and African antelope horns lining the walls and ceiling of the basement store are actually some people’s idea of presents. “If you’ve given someone the scarf and the gloves and the book and can’t think of anything else,” declares Henry Galiano, the 34-year-old owner of the bones boutique on Manhattan’s West Side, “give a skull.”
The store is called Maxilla and Mandible, for the upper and lower jawbones, which are available in sizes ranging from mouse to elephant. Also for sale are such mundane items as a human kneecap ($4) and assorted ribs, radii and ulnae ($15 or under). But you’ll have to pay through the nasal bones for a rare African giraffe skull ($1,500). Such prices notwithstanding, “When you see something here you want, you have to buy it right away or you’ll never see it again,” complains Eliot Goldfinger, an anatomical sculptor who’s now teaching anatomy to art students with the help of a bison skull from M & M. Most of Galiano’s customers are artists who, he says, “appreciate the aesthetic and anatomical beauty” of dem dry bones. But some clients are less high-minded. Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Martin purchased a $12 muskrat skull as a gift for a friend who thought he had everything. Says Martin, “It was small, cheap and odd.”
An art school dropout who served as curatorial assistant in the Museum of Natural History’s department of vertebrate paleontology for 10 years, Galiano broke into the bone biz in 1983. He was throwing away a few skulls he no longer needed when a friend suggested he try selling them at a local flea market. “I made a thousand dollars that day,” remembers Galiano, who set up shop in his present location in February 1985. Since then he estimates that he’s taken in close to $200,000. Laments Dr. Richard Tedford, his boss at the museum, “We urged him to go back to school, but Henry was more of a free spirit.”
These days he draws on a network of suppliers who, he says, “frequent slaughterhouses and game-processing plants and call me if something interesting comes in.” A hardheaded environmentalist, Galiano will not deal in endangered species or place orders for specific bones (“If I offered enough money, someone might kill an animal, and I wouldn’t want that”).
Galiano (who obtains human bones from Europe, since tampering with cadavers is illegal in this country) says he wouldn’t mind ending up on the wall of Maxilla and Mandible. “This is an honorable way of going,” he says, admiring the contents of his store. “I’d rather be like this than in the ground.”