by Tim Gilmore, 2/15/2019
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 decapitated 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 their hardware store at 28th and Main Streets in 1947, then expanded south to Curry-Thomas Hardware and Gun, in 1953. They moved into this largest storefront, formerly A&P, a grocery residual from British and American Empire, The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, around 1975.
The largest storefront in the faded ocher shopping center, parking spaces sequestered in the middle, at the confluence of Beach and Atlantic Boulevards in St. Nicholas, Curry-Thomas 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 cops.
Tom says he’s been shopping here for 40 years. “These people know guns,” he says. “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 imputing 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.” Last November, in fact, The Tampa Bay Times reported that 82,000 guns stolen in Florida in the last decade remain missing.
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, but won’t elaborate.
Roger hunted as a teenager, but when he grew up, he says, he “put all that behind him.” His father wasn’t as interested in guns as he was hardware. “He was very concerned about the larger chain-stores that were coming in. 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.”
Steve 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.”
With an index finger from underneath, he 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 heads back separately.
“Now,” he says, “to get the meat ready, you get the skin off all the way down to his nose, cut all his meat off, 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 stories 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 curve-bladed horns, and wild big cats, the T-U said Snow kept human arms, on which he often “practiced,” in his freezer at home.
Not much has changed at Curry-Thomas for decades. The trophy collection has grown. 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 now bring their grandkids to see Brodie’s bear and Snow’s lion.
Dust motes scintillate through cages and over shelves of electrical supplies. A stapled piece of cardboard on a bolt of camouflage cloth prices it at $4.95 a yard. Over random racks of antler, varying in size, a mounted jackalope head stares out from a back corner wall.
“Yessir,” Steve says. “A jackalope’s what he is.”
“So what’s the story?” I ask.
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. What do I see of me in the eyes of their beheadings? Can you see yourself reflected there? If so, what do you see?