by Tim Gilmore, 2/21/2019
The heads of cape buffalo that look me in the eye are the size of a nearby bobcat. In police lineups above us hang the heads of a lion, a wild boar, an impala, an ibex, and at least two dozen caribou. Paralyzed in stances of pretended motion are squirrels, wild turkeys, an Alaskan brown bear.
Steve Thomas doesn’t know how many heads adorn these walls. “Aw shit,” he says, “We got at least 50.”
Everett Curry and Steve’s father, Charles Thomas, founded Curry-Thomas Hardware at 28th and Main Streets in 1947, then expanded south to the triangular St. Nicholas Shopping Center in 1953. They moved into this former A&P Grocery around 1975. Back at that first location on Main Street, most of a century later, plywood covers a window and bears the recent hand-painted inscription: “An ‘Olde’ Time Hardware Mower & Blower ETC. Sales & Repair.”
In St. Nicholas, Curry-Thomas occupies the large standalone building behind a horseshoe of storefronts in the faded ocher-colored shopping center. At the confluence of Beach and Atlantic Boulevards, most storefronts face the outside streets, with parking sequestered in the middle. Facing the central parking lot, the hardware and gun shop exhibits a formidable menagerie of taxidermy, both stunning and shocking, impressive and appalling, several specimens of which came from a prominent local plastic surgeon and philanthropist.
Beneath a stuffed coyote, two men in their 70s stare at each other. Finally one of them, Tom Genest, says, “I know you.” The other man is Roger Curry, son of one of the founders. They’re both retired from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Curry as emergency communications officer, Genest as police lieutenant. Roger speaks quietly; Tom’s voice booms.
Tom’s been shopping here for 40 years. “These people know guns,” he says, drawing a line between local business and corporate franchise. “Kids working at Dick’s Sporting Goods don’t know what they’re doing.”
“When I was on the force,” Roger says, “one of the things I was responsible for was inputting stolen guns into the system. Before that, I didn’t realize how many kinds of guns there are. For every Smith and Wesson, there’s 50 kinds you never heard of.”
“Saturday night specials,” Tom says. “The no-name guns.”
The problem of stolen guns has skyrocketed in recent years. Last November, in fact, The Tampa Bay Times reported that 82,000 guns stolen in Florida in the last decade remain missing. Stolen firearms flood the Sunshine State.
Everett Curry sold his share of the store to Charles Thomas sometime in the late 1950s. Roger’s not sure why. He says his father was a difficult man. “You can tell a lot about what kind of person someone is by how they treat servers in a restaurant,” he says. “He was quick to recognize faults in others but not in himself.” He shows me his driver’s license: “That’s the spittin’ image of him.” Later, Roger shows me a photo of his father. It’s an image of a man half the age of his son.
Roger hunted as a teenager, but when he grew up, he says, he “put all that behind” him. In the early 1980s, the number of American hunters peaked at 17 million, according to a January 18, 2018 Outdoor Life magazine story. Since then, the issuing of hunting licenses has plummeted. According to a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, only about four percent of Americans now hunt.
Roger’s father wasn’t as interested in guns as he was in hardware, and even back in the ’50s, he worried the business was declining. “He was very concerned about the larger chain-stores that were coming in,” Roger says. “You couldn’t go in and buy a screw. You had to buy a box of them. And the service wasn’t there. The people in the bigger stores didn’t know the job. He thought it was the end of the hardware trade.”
But Steve Thomas says the gun business in St. Nicholas has stayed steady across the decades. Fewer people own guns, but they own more of them. He’s quick to fall into storytelling with customers. He nods to the head of a caribou he shot in Alaska with his brothers and says, “Bush pilot dropped us off on the lake, 150 miles west of Anchorage. We was there seven days. We lived off what caribou we didn’t send back.”
His stories highlight the strangeness of finding dozens of carcasses preserved in a hardware store. It’s not so much that a fox is out of place in the center of the city. Possums, raccoons, and buzzards live better on the streets than most human beings, and occasionally someone spots a coyote that’s wandered into Manhattan. But the fox and coyote posed atop shelves of nails and pliers look as deeply out-of-place as suburban hunters must appear to natural deep-forest denizens, the difference being that our space is artificial.
With an index finger from underneath, Steve thumps the bill of his camouflage ball cap, repositioning it higher on his forehead, sits down in a chair facing rows of rifles on a back wall, and stretches his legs. He talks about shipping the meat and the heads of the caribou he shot back separately.
“Now,” he says casually, “to get the meat ready, you get the skin off all the way down to his nose, cut all his meat off his bones, then get him in the box and over to the packin’ plant to ship back.”
Obviously, many of the taxidermied animals that surround us didn’t come from Alaska, nor Georgia and South Carolina, where Steve counts his favorite hunting grounds. “These’ns come from people all over town,” he says, nodding toward thousand-pound hunting trophies.
In the early 1970s, when the four Thomas boys began hanging heads, other local trophy hunters decided to show their prizes here too.
A longtime customer named Lenny Brodie killed the Alaskan brown bear. Steve nods, reaches into his pocket. He pulls out a giant wad of tobacco and folds and fits into his mouth. “Wasn’t six months after he shot that bear that he died. He wudden but 44 years old,” he says. “Cancer.”
Most of the African game arrived by way of Dr. John Snow—the lion and the adolescent cheetah entire, the two cape buffalo heads. A member of the International Safari Club, Snow exhibited these trophies at Curry-Thomas, but kept most of his collection at home.
When he died in December 2011, his daughter Stefanie Snow of Washington State told The Florida Times-Union’s Sandy Strickland, “As soon as you opened the door to the house, you saw this life-sized polar bear staring at you. He had big animal heads all over the house.”
Snow repaired cleft palates for children whose families couldn’t afford help, developed and patented techniques for hand surgery, and sculpted Bible story themes in bronze. He published 47 articles in peer-reviewed medical journals.
Along with full-sized stuffed bears and mounted heads of twisting-horned kudus, antelopes with curved-bladed horns, and big wild cats, the T-U said Snow kept human arms, on which he often “practiced,” in his freezer at home.
For decades now, not much has changed at Curry-Thomas. The trophy collection has stagnated. Steve’s brother Terry died a few years ago, his brother Matt last year, both from cancer. “It’s just me and my brother Tim now,” he says.
Curry-Thomas customers Steve’s known since the 1960s who once brought their children to see the trophy heads and fully preserved bobcats and foxes and Brodie’s bear and Snow’s lion now bring their grandchildren to see them.
Dust motes scintillate through cages and over shelves of electrical supplies. A stapled piece of cardboard atop a bolt of camouflage cloth prices it at $4.95 a yard. Amidst raccoon pelts and random racks of antler, varying in size, a mounted jackalope head stares out from a back corner wall.
“Yessir,” Steve says with a smirk. “A jackalope’s what he is.”
“So what’s his story?” I ask, wondering if he believes I believe in jackalopes.
He nods and says, “He come from Montana’s all I know.”
The eyes of other heads meet me more truthfully. I try to see what they might see if they could. What do I see of myself in the eyes of their beheadings? I know that what’s wild stands apart from me.
Unlike a man, a wild animal that kills me does not commit murder. It’s only human beings who make such choices.