Curiosity Shops

At The Place Upstairs, Gifts for the Weirdo in Your Life

What do you get someone who has everything? How about a human skeleton?

By Marianella Orlando November 29, 2015 Published in the December 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Michael Hildebrand and Laura Levine of Mid-Main’s The Place Upstairs

“Mike, I need bones. Do you have bones?” It’s Friday night, and a man has just walked through the door at The Place Upstairs. He approaches Michael Hildebrand, cell phone in hand, to show him what he’s looking for. “I’m not sure,” says Hildebrand. “Let’s go check.”

The two head to a dimly lit area where Hildebrand keeps his 19th-century medicine cabinet, mummified cat and squirrel, metal crib filled with limbs from medical mannequins, porcelain dolls, clown portraits and rows of preserved animals in jars. There, they find what they need: a few hawk feathers, some dog vertebrae and several chicken claws.

“He’s making a sculpture,” laughs Laura Levine, noticing a visitor’s look of alarm. For two years now, Levine and Hildebrand have co-owned The Place Upstairs, an antique-oddity boutique above the Continental Club in Midtown, selling their weird wares during the shop’s equally weird hours—Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.—because, as Levine puts it, “Sunlight makes it lose its mystique.”

The two met 15 years ago and have been together for six, bonding over a shared love for the secondhand—she focuses on clothing and accessories, he on the odd and creepy. When they moved in together, merging their things, their home quickly filled up with stuff, which is why they opened this space, where their personal collection is up for sale. “At first when people came in I thought, Okay, you have to be either a Satanist or a drug addict,” says Levine, “because who else would come here at late hours looking for bones? But I’ve learned a lot of the people here are really smart and cool.”

A typical evening sees collectors, artists and Main Street bar-goers curious about the mysterious boutique wandering in to peruse the shop’s wares, which include jewelry, retro clothing, paintings, ’60s gumball machine toys, matchbooks and more. Levine and Hildebrand—who also own Replay, a vintage shop on 19th Street in the Heights—acquired the items on display over decades by bartering with friends or hitting estate sales and antique fairs.

But the shop’s centerpiece they acquired from a haunted house. It’s a human skeleton known as Sparky, who lies encased in a cherrywood casket near the store’s entrance. “Is it your first time here? Did you see Sparky?” asks Hildebrand, pointing out his trophy to a group of fascinated visitors who want to know: Why “Sparky”? “We felt like he had some spunk,” Hildebrand laughs.

While Sparky and his coffin can be had for a mere $8,000, Hildebrand’s newest possession—a two-headed, gray-and-white, stillborn kitten known as Cain and Able, resting in a formalin-filled jar—presently isn’t for sale. Hildebrand, it seems, isn’t quite ready to say good-bye. “We’re not going to get rich doing this,” admits Levine, “but we get to meet a lot of fun people.”

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