- You might wonder how a tiny, out of the way, plant store evolved into a world-renowned oddities emporium. I think I can say that, can’t I?

From Gardening Shop to Oddities Emporium

The Evolution of Paxton Gate


You might wonder how a tiny, out of the way, plant store evolved into a world-renowned oddities emporium. I think I can say that, can’t I? I mean, how many oddities stores are there in the world really?

It was all a matter of evolution and, as a staunch believer in the process whereby one organism slowly transforms into another over time, I think it’s not a surprise that Paxton Gate began as one entity and has become another over the years.

Not everyone knows this, but in the early years, we were a plant and gardening store. In fact, our first feature article, by Jo Mancuso in Image Magazine, was titled “Lean & Green.” “Green” referred to the plants of course, while “Lean” was concerned with the fact that the space was tiny, and we had hardly anything in the store. The latter, if I recall, was framed by the author as a statement in minimalism where, in truth, we just couldn’t afford to buy any more merchandise. In those early days, we would literally sell an item, take the money, go buy two more of them, and put them on the shelves!


From Plant Store to Bug Store and Beyond

As I mentioned in Issue #6, the oddities first crept into the scene in the form of a few insects that we pinned to a log used for displaying merchandise. Later, we learned to mount and frame them, which, in turn, led to an entire wall of insects and a fledgling Paxton Gate frequently being labeled “The Bug Store.” It didn’t take long before we started experimenting. One of our first dalliances into the realms of taxidermy was through the work of local, San Francisco artist and taxidermist, Jeanie M. Jeanie started her artistic career in photography which included creating grisly vignettes using roadkill. At some point she thought to herself, “Some of these parts are still good,” which eventually led her to the craft of taxidermy and ultimately a specialization in creating mice dressed as various characters. One mouse might be garbed in Shakespearian attire, as Hamlet holding a tiny mouse skull, or another in Gothic attire, as if ready for the next Edwardian Ball. She even made an Elvis mouse at one point, and we sold numerous custom order mice for clients over the years. Jeanie also created “angel mice” by attaching artificial white wings to white mice that would dangle as if flying, making them exceptional Christmas tree ornaments.


Believe it or not, in our early incarnation, I was worried what people might think of us if we sold taxidermy! For a couple years, the only taxidermy I dared to carry were Jeanie’s angel mice around Christmas. Clearly, I eventually warmed to the idea, and we started carrying Jeanie’s mouse characters year-round. Jeanie no longer makes the mice but other artists, some of whom learned from Jeanie, carry on the tradition. This eventually led to other small pieces: small taxidermy, sea life, shells and other creatures that we believed were just as stunning preserved, as they were alive.

I should say, this wasn’t purely a business decision, nor was this evolution the product of random occurrence.


It also harkened back to early interests of mine. Sometime in my early teens—maybe even younger—I recall reading through a how-to manual regarding taxidermy, fully intent on becoming a taxidermist. I don’t recall whether I ever tried it; maybe I never found the right roadkill to practice on. Even before that, I had a modest mineral collection which I remember displaying on a folding table at the local mall in Northern California. Paxton Gate’s evolution was part of a natural progression of offerings based, frankly, on what I liked and in which direction my interests were heading. Things weren’t so formal in those early years as to “define our brand” or to have guiding principles. I just carried things I thought worked and felt were right occupying space in the store. It wasn’t until later that I learned that this was called “on brand.”


In 1999 I opened our Valencia Street store, seven years after opening at 1204 Stevenson St. I fully planned on keeping the original location but, once the grand new location opened, people stopped going to the little, hard to find place. So, I closed it in October of that year. The new location, at nearly 2000 square feet, with its high ceilings, afforded the opportunity for more taxidermy and larger pieces. And thus, the evolution continued.

The Cache That Started It All

Jack Holland came to us in the early months of 2005 with stories of his travels, his hunting expeditions in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and his massive collection of taxidermy. An imposing fellow and a former “oil man,” he had at one point, “a couple pilots” on his payroll. Jack regaled us in stories of his travels around the globe. To some people, this hunting for the sake of hunting may feel excessive or corrupt but, for me, putting it in the context of the times and his contemporaries, it seemed like a relic from a mostly bygone era, but one that I comfortable with. And, although Jack was clearly a trophy hunter, he was a sensitive and caring person (I must confess to feeling like I wanted him to be my step-grandfather on more than one occasion).

Most striking in this regard was Jack’s story of having to euthanize a giraffe. It was the first of only two giraffes we ever sold in the SF store. Rather than the result of his hunting, he came upon a giraffe that had been attacked by a leopard and escaped but was mortally wounded.


“She was near death and suffering,” he said. As Jack told me the story of putting her down and the locals taking the meat, he was tearing up. It struck me that, like Audubon and Hornaday, Jack cared about and respected the animals he hunted, and he held them in high esteem. For some, combining this love of nature and of animals with the desire to mount them as trophies is hard to stomach, and I understand that. But, in my many conversations with Jack, I grew to respect him and had no qualms consigning his life’s work.


Jack’s collection of taxidermy had moved from house to house. He was clearly a wealthy man and had several homes with caretakes whose “wives”—according to Jack— “kept vetoing the collection being stored on the premises.” Each time, this caused the substantial lot to be moved to a different house with a newly disappointed homemaker. Eventually, it ended up in a pile in a warehouse in the Bayview district. Jack and I met, and we started looking through the pieces that ranged from common African specimens such as elands, blesboks, and red hartebeests, to giant specimens, including some pieces that he had hunted legally but we could not legally sell. For example, he had a massive walrus shoulder mount, probably the most impressive mount I’ve ever seen. In addition, he had leopards, lions, even a huge free standing Grizzly Bear, and scores more.


We spent hours looking through the pieces, and Jack continued with his stories. The Grizzly in fact, held some sort of record for size, which Jack confirmed by sharing a book entry including his name, the date, and the size of the bear. He told of how he and a hunting colleague—I don’t know his name, but I’ll call him Jim—had planned the trip to Alaska. As I learned is common on these trips, hunters take turns. Jack and his fellow hunter came upon a huge grizzly, and it was Jim’s turn. The grizzly saw them, got spooked, and charged. Jack raised his gun and waited with Jim just out of sight next to him. “Take the shot Jim. JIM!? JIM, TAKE THE SHOT!” The bear was getting closer and closer, and Jim hadn’t shot. Finally, when he felt he could wait no longer without risking his life, Jack shot, and the massive animal fell only a few dozen feet from where they stood. Turning to Jim, all that remained was his rifle on the ground. He had panicked and had run for his life. I spent the day taking notes and hearing stories, we researched what was legal to sell (not an easy task, to this day), and started consigning Jack’s pieces, selling them over the next few years.


Once the walls were filled with Jack’s vast collection, we’d made the full transition from plant shop to bug store, and now the oddities emporium. From there my interests, as well as those of our customers, started to branch out and included wet specimens, more bones and skulls (one of my favorite categories to this day), and an even deeper dive into fossils and minerals. (See Issue #8 for more about fossils and minerals).

Over the nearly three decades that we’ve been around, I’ve seen children visit Paxton Gate, grow up, and bring their kids to the store. In fact, currently, our entire retail staff was born after Paxton Gate opened! (Clearly, I’m dating myself here). I’d love to hear from these generational visitors: How do you perceive the changes? Did you notice? Was it so gradual that you weren’t aware of the progression? In what direction would you like us to develop next?

I’m sure Paxton Gate will continue to evolve. With so many years into this, I can even imagine a time when it will do so without me. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, but Paxton Gate has certainly taken on a life of its own and it’s one I hope each new generation of San Franciscans can enjoy for decades to come.

—Sean Quigley, Founder


Founder’s Favorite

Tillandsia Xerographica, The King of the “Airplants”


Ok plant-nerds* just relax. I understand you may think that T. grandis should be King by virtue of its size, or perhaps T. secunda due to its prolific reproduction, or any number of varieties for various reasons. But I’ve opted to christen T. Xerographica with the title as it is a robust and beautiful plant, it has a fantastic story as any proper King should, and you will find them in any respectable retail offering of Tillandsias. I.e. a non-plant-nerd can own one.


Native to Guatemala and Mexico, the symmetrical, leathery-leaved plant is endangered in the wild. They are greenhouse grown from seed, sometimes taking ten to twelve years to reach maturity at around 12 inches (but are capable of reaching more than twice that size). I was pleasantly surprised on a plant collecting trip in Guatemala many years ago to find a small enclave of the plants. As is typical of my collecting, I was “road hunting,” which means driving along precariously narrow, unkempt, dirt roads while looking up into the trees and on rocks, rather than at the road before me. I spotted an intriguing grove of candelabra cacti, pulled over, and hiked the few hundred yards to them. Once there I found a few T. Streptophylla and T. Bulbosa and couple other common species, and then stumbled on dozens of the endangered xerographicas. Many of them were in bloom with purple flowers on yellow & orange spikes branching 15 inches above the plant. I took some pictures and, of course, left the plants. To this day they’re still one of my favorite species and every time a new shipment arrives, I covet them.

Comments, ideas for articles, or inquiries? Email us at Paxtonian@Paxtongate.com.

Sign up to receive The Paxtonian by clicking here.

See past editions here

Shop Paxton Gate
Facebook  Instagram  Pinterest  Twitter

Copyright © 202 Paxton Gate, All rights reserved. 

You are receiving this email because you signed up for a class or opted in to our mailing list.