Obscure reality

Reality television has diluted the meaning of reality. The latest trend in reality shows follows America’s national pastime: retail. Shows like Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn, and American Pickers turn the everyday act of buying and selling goods in to melodrama.

In this very strange crop of shows, however, the strangest is the Science Channel’s Oddities, which chronicles the business of selling bizarre antiques. The show features Obscura, an antique store in New York’s East Village, which sells everything from embalming kits to mutant taxidermy. During one episode, the owners haggled with a seller over the price of a cycloptic pig preserved in formaldehyde. On a recent trip to Manhattan, I decided to visit Obscura and see how the reality stacks up to the television show.

One thing the show does not impart is how small and out-of-the-way the store is. Obscura is on a relatively quiet section of East 10th Street, adjacent to apartments and a Turkish bath. There was half of a bomb casing sitting in front of the store when I went, which seemed encouraging. The store itself has the floor space of a college dorm room, with every available inch crammed with merchandise.

That merchandise definitely lives up to the show’s hype. Among the items for sale were: a “No Parking: Funeral” sign, a practice mouth used to train dentists, and a human skull. “Is that a shock therapy machine?” one customer asked. I was not expecting to find anything for budget shoppers, since items on the show usually sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. However, there were some affordable items, and even some for the less adventurous. I walked out of Obscura with some vintage postcards priced at $1.00 each.

On screen, Obscura is frequented by sideshow performers and people who make sculptures out of dust and nail clippings, but the people browsing when I was there seemed quite normal. The store’s owners (and the show’s main characters) weren’t around, but the staff was very friendly. The woman working the register enthusiastically discussed the merchandise and even gave me a discount. The atmosphere is exactly what viewers of Oddities would expect; it’s one of the few places on Earth where you will hear someone say “Don’t you shake that femur at me!”

Despite the publicity of a reality show, the owners of Obscura seem to be keeping things low key. The real-life store seems quite ordinary, despite its extraordinary wares. Television has not corrupted this reality yet.

Oddities airs Saturdays at 9:00 on the Science Channel.

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