Let’s say you’re a jaded shopper. Let’s say you’ve had it with Neiman-Marcus; Bloomingdale’s bores the bejeebers out of you. And let’s say you’re looking for something truly special—like a muzzle-loading cannon, a walking stick made from a bull’s pizzle or the skeleton of a woman at rest in her Victorian coffin.
Then welcome to Bones Lionberger’s place, Trenton (pop. 6,811), Mo.’s No. 1 tourist attraction. Opened in 1935 as an auto-parts store, Bones’ has grown into six ramshackle buildings locally touted as the largest exotic junk emporium in the world—one that attracts visitors from all across the U.S.
Born Emegene Oral Lionberger, Bones earned the nickname “Bone-head” when, as a kid, the town bully punched him in the pate and broke his own thumb. Now, such is his renown, Lionberger is listed in the phone book simply as Bones Lionberger. A partial listing of his inventory: miniature boxing gloves autographed by Jack Dempsey; 600 or so celluloid collars; spats; a mummified rat still attached to its death trap; the official 1881 proclamation of mourning for President James A. Garfield; and hundreds of hats, pantaloons, whalebone corsets—for rent at 50¢ a wearing—and high-button shoes. Of course there are tons of auto parts, too. But you’d better act now if you want those fiber universal joints for your 1926 Chevy. There’re only four dozen left.
“People ask me how come I got parts for Whippets and Deusenbergs. Hell, them cars used to be commonplace,” says Bones, chomping on his ever-present stogie. “Guy came in from Kansas City last week. Wanted a copper manifold for his ’35 Chevy. Asked if I had one. Well, course I did,” he adds, shaking his head at the K.C. gent of little faith. “Twenty-six bucks, and it was brand new.”
As for the skeleton in the coffin, “The Knights of Pythias used to use it in their initiations,” Bones says. “I traded a guy an alarm clock for it. This rest home wanted to borrow it for Halloween last year. I said to ’em, ‘Hell, no. Those folks got one leg in the grave now. I ain’t putting the other’n in.’ ”
Despite two heart attacks, Bones, who briefly was “a fighter and a rassler” in his youth, works 14 hours a day seven days a week. He’s aided by Mildred, his wife of 46 years, who helps customers pore over thousands of shoes, socks, Army surplus apparel and kid’s camouflage outfits ($24.50), their best-seller. Bones and Mildred live right across the street in an old, two-story house. It’s chock-full of such arcane objects as a bear-claw Indian necklace, rubber hot dogs, fake nosebleeds and plastic fried eggs, many of which attest to Bones’ eternally youthful sense of humor. “Most folks call this junk,” he grins. “But I call it fun.” Then Bones gestures at the Victorian lady’s bones. “Folks always want to know why I keep her,” he says, perplexed. “Hell, it’s old, ain’t it?”