Ballyhoo Curiosity Shop unfurls gradually with each step down into its depths. Its wares range from a two-headed calf that greets you upon entry, to a bookcase of miscellaneous doll parts, and a shelf of crystal balls line every inch of the basement space that yawns and creaks.
Despite its lack of windows and subterranean status, nothing about the place is dark nor dank. Instead, it is a facet of its aura—the curiosity shop itself a curiosity.
Ryan Robbins, 30, has owned the space for three years. He’s been buying and selling the weird and off-kilter since before the height of eBay. Then, of course, he hit his stride on eBay.
But, it was the transition to a physical storefront that was most meaningful to Robbins.
“I definitely wanted to have something that people would feel like was reminiscent of the Seattle they grew up in,” Robbins said, “or the Seattle they had a perception of before they moved here.”
We stood beneath Ballyhoo's low ceilings, two real-life human skeletons bookended us on either side of the room, there was a wall of taxidermy to my left, and a huge, gaping geode behind Robbins kept beckoning to me as he talked.
Robbins, a Seattle native (well, Shoreline, but it still counts) has watched Seattle—the people as well as the city itself—change. He notices this especially in small, niche retail businesses like his.
“A lot of Seattle retail, because of the layout of the city and the way they built the city, has been weird,” Robbins said. “The Fremont Vintage Mall is downstairs, there’s like five basement retail spaces in Ballard alone, at least. But more and more cool, cute little houses that used to host retail shops—those are gone.”
Think of the new retail sprouting up around town in the bottom floor of shiny new developments. In the University District, Morsel, the to-die-for biscuit and coffee shop, ditched its old rundown digs and moved a block up into a fresh new space where there aren’t rips in the seat cushions. It’s bigger and I can actually sit down and eat my Spanish Fly breakfast sandwich but it feels different. Same goes with the Hugo House. I haven’t been in the new space yet, I can see it from my office window and by all accounts, it’s going to be a swanky affair, but there’s something off about that creative space being in a big, fat, nondescript building.
“I think this is a nationwide problem in metropolitan areas,” Robbins said. “Things that are very readily accessible to a very broad audience are put in and have a feel like Starbucks. They might still be a mom and pop shop but they’re going in the bottom of a brand new apartment building instead of being tucked away in a tiny basement.”
Robbins is afraid that Seattle is losing its heart and soul. That everything is becoming streamlined. And while Ballyhoo has a stuck-in-time feeling to it, its clientele is impacted by a changing Seattle.
Robbins has noticed it slightly in what’s selling well. Typically, he said, people tend to buy more things that go on the walls. Fewer people are buying things they will have to allocate space for. He suspects it’s because Seattleites are living in smaller spaces.
“People don’t have space anymore,” Robbins said. “They’re getting pushed into smaller places. Certain things that might have had more value previously like really big statues or things that need more space to be accommodated like”—he motions to that giant geode, thank God—“this will be harder because people have like 150 square feet to work with as opposed to a 1200 square foot house.”
It’s common knowledge that owning a house in this area is unrealistic for most people. Though the housing market has cooled slightly, Seattle is the third-most-expensive city in the country for home prices. A poll from 2017 found that 45 percent of millennials in the Puget Sound area think they’ll have to move somewhere more affordable to achieve the quality of life they want.
For the time being, it seems smaller spaces are the new norm.
“Retail spaces are getting smaller and the once weird spots are now becoming retail fronts in what used to be a storage room,” Robbins said. “People who want to open up unique new businesses are looking in the crevices.”
No matter how normal the city gets, Ballyhoo is a haven for the weird. It’s a place where a mundane looking couple can come and purchase a doll head lamp, where collectors thrive, and bartenders and restaurateurs can cultivate their image. The shop's value, as Robbins puts it, is that it offers something different from the everyday. It’s a reprieve from reality, a break from routine.