The annual celebration of spookiness is looming, but for some, Halloween is not just a holiday, but a way of life to be celebrated year-round. Parkville resident Pamela Smith has turned her love of the macabre into a successful business
Noir Arts and Oddities, located on West 39th Street near the University of Kansas Medical Center, draws visitors from all around the Midwest to shop Smith’s curated collection of Victorian antiques as well as the dark and unique.
A native of the Independence area, Smith moved to the Parkville area about 12 years ago. Her son, Zane, who assists her at the store, is a senior at Park Hill High School and after graduation plans to work with his mother full time to gain real-world business experience.
Prior to launching Noir, Smith worked in the information technology field for nearly 20 years. For someone with a life-long interest in the strange and antiquated, the nine-to-five grind got old and she started looking for a creative outlet for her childhood hobby — collecting and learning about history.
“When I was a kid, my grandparents lived at Lake of the Ozarks and I would spend the summers with them going to estate sales and auctions,” Smith said. “I started collecting dolls, but not the pretty dolls. I wanted the ones that were cracked, because I thought nobody would love them if I didn’t.”
Smith also collected antique photographs, and sometimes wrote back stories for the people pictured. As she grew older, she noticed something odd about one of the photos in her collection — a little girl she had dubbed Lizzie, who appeared to be asleep. Smith had spun a yarn for this little “sleeping beauty” as a child.
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but when I got older, I realized Lizzie wasn’t asleep,” Smith said. “I was repulsed at first, but I was also fascinated.”
Lizzie was the subject of a Victorian funeral portrait.
In a time when photography was the newest technology and mortality rates were high, particularly for children, sometimes parents’ only image of their child was taken after the child’s death. Many of these photos have survived to the modern era and are now considered collector’s items.
Smith said this launched her desire to learn about the Victorian era, when technology was taking its first leaps into the modern age.
Of particular interest were Victorian medical practices, and the equipment left behind. Dusty bags from traveling doctors making house calls were still common in antique stores 20 to 30 years ago, and ornate glass medicine bottles could still be found in the cabinets of many families.
“I loved history, but I was terrible at remembering dates,” Smith said. “I just wanted to know the stories.”
Smith’s research led her to Civil War medicine and another emerging practice of the time — embalming. A new industry was born during the Civil War when enterprising businessmen and amateur chemists starting creating strange cocktails to preserve the bodies of fallen soldiers so they could be transported home for burial.
It was simply a hobby, until Smith saw the Discovery Channel show Oddities, which documents a New York City store called Obscura Antiques and Oddities. The staff at Obscura searches out rare and strange items for sale to celebrity clients and the general public.
“I saw this show, and I realized I wasn’t alone,” Smith said. “I called my mom and told her to watch it. I said, ‘See? I’m not the only one who thinks these things are interesting.’”
Smith contacted Obscura owner Mike Zohn to seek advice about how to turn her passion into a business.
“He told me to start small, so I did,” she said, opening a booth in July of 2014 at Top Hat Mercantile in the West Bottoms.
Smith said she was surprised by the response to a booth full of Victorian antiques, skulls and other animal specimens.
“People came, and then they started coming back,” Smith said. “Little did I know, we’re out there — the spooky people.”
By Black Friday 2014, Smith opened shop at her current 860 square foot space on West 39th Street with the help of Melissa Evans, owner of modern vintage clothing and accessory store Retro Vixen across the street.
“It was scary because a lot of new retail stores don’t make it to 24 months,” Smith said, recalling her decision to shift her IT employment to part-time to focus on Noir.
Filling the store with items from her personal collection would only work for so long, so soon Smith and her son were taking buying trips near and far to pick items to sell. Typical fare at Noir consists of antiques such as those cracked porcelain dolls, Victorian photos, medical and scientific equipment, taxidermy, skeletal animal (and human) specimens, animal specimens pickled in jars as well as darkly-inspired accessories, jewelry and books.
“I’m a collector, but Zane is good at being the bad cop when we’re looking at things,” Smith said. “He can say, ‘Now mom, do you want this for the store, or do you just want it?’”
But, the store isn’t just about buying and selling. Smith wants to focus on building a community and spreading awareness of often-ignored history.
“I like to say we’re bringing dark history into the light,” Smith said of the store, which she has dubbed “the parlor,” to evoke the feel of a Victorian home. “We’re creating a place for people who have felt alone to come and share their interests.
“I would have loved to have had that sooner in life. I’m still startled every day that this is my life and I get to do this every day now.”
Noir participates in the West 39th Street Third Fridays celebrations, last week hosting a Victorian-inspired Halloween party, and has partnered with other community organizations to raise awareness of dark history. A display of antique medical equipment is currently on loan to the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park, Kan. and Smith participated in a recent Victorian funeral customs event at the historic — and often rumored haunted — Vaile Mansion in Independence.
Noir has also launched its own social club, the Creepsville Club, with the motto “Keep Kansas City Creepy.” Its first event was a group outing to the Mummies of the World exhibit at Union Station in August.
Already outgrowing its space, Smith plans to move Noir to a larger location in the near future.
“I would love to have an old Victorian home that’s commercially zoned,” Smith said. “That way we could have more room to host events and add classes and lectures. Hopefully, we’ll luck into a beautiful place.”
More information on Noir Arts and Oddities is available at www.noirartsandoddities.com.