I freely admit that I first fell in love with the Pacific Northwest from afar while watching Twin Peaks back when I was attending high school in Chicago, but I’ve actually lived in the PNW since 2000. With its deep, lush forests, stormy beaches, and seemingly endless chains of grey, rainy days, the PNW is a wonderful place to live if you’re partial to melancholy weather and green landscapes. It’s also home to two fantastic cities with lots to offer the darkly-inclined. However, until very recently, if you lived in Portland and wanted to go shopping for antique and vintage morbid treasures, taxidermy and scientific specimens, and other assorted oddities and curiosities, there was no single location offering all those things. Enter Nathan Graves and his enticing emporium of weird wonders, Cemetery Gates, Portland’s premier oddities shop. Haute Macabre recently sat down with Nathan to learn more about him and his rapidly growing business.
HM: How did you first find yourself interested in collecting and later selling the dark, unusual, and macabre in a professional capacity?
NG: I’ve been “picking” since I was 6. My family used to get BBQ every Sunday and I was allowed to pick out one small thing from the thrift store next door and even then it was always something weird. Often times it was a book once I was a bit older. Around 10 I started collecting old editions of the Guinness Book Of World Records, which started my obsession with “natural” oddities and anything magic or Houdini related, which immediately lead to mediumship and spiritism. By 13 I was the weird kid. I’ve always collected, but it wasn’t until my late 20’s that I started to focus specifically on the odd and macabre. I’ve had so many careers, from building lowriders to cooking ramen, and yet here I am, exactly where I started, acquiring and researching everything I can, wide eyed and eager for more.
HM: Tell us a little about how you started Cemetery Gates, your influences and inspirations, and your specific drives and goals for your business.
NG: I’m first generation American, born in south Florida and came to Portland in my late 20’s by way of D.C. When I first moved to Portland and found a favorite graveyard to sulk around in, there was a coffee shop near it that had just closed called “Cemetery Gates Cafe” that I heard was a nod toward The Smiths. I immediately thought that would be a great name for a macabre boutique and why does Portland, the self proclaimed weirdest city, not have an oddities shop? That thought wouldn’t cross my mind again for four years.
The initial intention of this brand was mostly a social media marketing experiment and a way to get rid of some of the doubles (or triples) of my books. I was inspired by an Instagram account called Moonstruck Vintage Finds, one of a few brands pioneering the “comment to buy” method of sales. At the time I sold mid century modern home decor and retro electronics on eBay and was burned out by all the fees and lack of personal touch, so this platform seemed exciting and almost infinitely dynamic. I was about a year into it when I decided to leave my previous career so that I could devote my effort completely to this endeavor. At that point the turn over of product was increasingly rapid and I was receiving praise and support from the people in the community that I was most inspired by, which emboldened me to make an attempt at closing the gaps between us. But even this was only sustainable for so long, what with the growth in following and rate of transactions, so in my second year I bought a domain and started CEMETERYGATES.CO.
Throughout all of this my intention has been to provide quality, unique items, “reasonably priced” while obviously increasing my own collection and knowledge. As I’ve grown and the brand has become bigger than me and my collection, so have my goals. I envision a community where education is free, sourcing and authenticity are transparent and integrity is a standard. For a lot of collectors, our space is sacred, it’s safe. That shouldn’t come with sacrifice or high cost and you should know where it’s coming from. That’s the ideal experience I’d like to provide whether a purchase is made or otherwise.
Not too distant future goals include: artist series packaging, apparel and home goods and an image resource blog with high res scans of all photographs, book covers and illustrations from my collection. There’s talk of a YouTube channel, but I’m really freaked out about that idea still so that’s on the back burner.
HM: We once talked about how the Morbid Anatomy Museum sometimes offered classes to its patrons. What sorts of hands-on educational opportunities are you interested in offering through Cemetery Gates?
NG: I’m always willing to share knowledge or connect people to others more educated on a topic. I volunteer at a non-profit called Marrow and will be offering free courses on insect pinning and framing. The Art Institute has asked me to speak each semester on social media and marketing, so I’m always available to discuss what does or very does not work (for me anyway). As for adults in the PNW, there will be programming for taxidermy, bug pinning, terrariums and possibly DIY spooky home decor this summer.
HM: What are you up to when you aren’t at work or out collecting treasures for your shop?
NG: There’s rarely a time when I’m not actively seeking things out. Much of my life overlaps that way. I enjoy exploring remote cemeteries and abandoned areas, which is also where I prefer to shoot product. These places are always in the middle of nowhere so I just pick one on the map and stop whenever I see a shop or town that looks like I want to dig around in.
On the rare occasions that I’m not spooking around an old church or graveyard, I volunteer at a nonprofit called Marrow, that’s a radical education and creative space for teens. Most recently I’ve been assisting the founder, Daylynn in the renovations in their new space, but I will be offering workshops on anything I’m capable of educating the community on and that they might take interest in.
I apprentice under and assist a street artist and screen printer who’s moniker is RX SKULLS. In addition to street art, they run a screen printing company from their studio. I take on a lot of the tasks before and after the actual printing itself in exchange for education and print/design work for my brand. (I would’ve done it all for free since we’re friends though, so joke’s on him.) While our work together on Cemetery Gates has been clandestine, you can expect to see the fruits of our labor by this summer.
The rest of the time I’m probably sleeping or overdoing self care.
HM: As a collector of oddities and other vintage morbid treasures yourself, does your personal collection have a particular theme?
NG: My collection is and always has been all over the place. I’m drawn to anything rich with provenance or a good story. Gifts and things I find “in the wild” are always permanently personal collection. One of a kind or extremely rare finds as well, even if they aren’t valuable. Some items instantly transport me to the time in my life in which I received them and those are what mean the most.
HM: As a collector myself, I too prize pieces that have interesting provenance and stories behind them. What’s one of your favorite stories attached to something you own?
NG: Because of my propensity for provenance, it’s difficult to choose one story. For simplicity I’ll go with my most recent. I got a tip that there was a living estate being liquidated and that they had a child’s coffin. Obviously I had to have it, so I closed up shop and drove out to this Deliverance-y part of Oregon and there it was as promised. As it turns out, I was purchasing this coffin from the man to whom it was intended to be a home for in death. In the 1940s, at four years old, he and his brother were diagnosed as “fatally ill” so the family began the necessary measures of planning the funerals and had two coffins made. Well the brother died like they said he would, but the other one made a “miraculous recovery”. For reasons I can not comprehend, they gave this child his coffin and inexplicably he decided to just hold onto it until he was old enough to need a bigger one. Now I can’t sell this coffin because the story is worth more than the object that it lives in.
HM: How does selling oddities affect your personal collection? Have you ever parted with something you now wish you’d kept?
NG: I stopped putting price tags on anything that would break my heart if we parted ways, so yes. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my brand and excited about what I find that I sell it “because I can” and then the collector in me regrets it. About 80% of my personal collection has a price tag on it, currently. I’m looking forward to the time in my life when I can keep more for myself and potentially start a small museum in Portland. However, if I part with something I love that ends up with someone important to me I’m usually far less moody about it.
HM: Seasoned pickers and collectors often seem to have interesting stories about people they’ve met in their travels. Are there any characters you’ve encountered over the years who particularly stand out?
NG: Due to the macabre nature of most my finds, the majority of the people I encounter are just happy to see whatever odd item I’m currently fawning over and then they leave, so the transactions are over before the hi, how do you do’s. Of course this is not always the case, so when I meet a fellow weird in the wild, I try to coax at least one tale out of them. I actually wanted to start a blog about those interactions and have been documenting most of my travels and acquisitions for the past year, but that’s another thing entirely.
So story that stands out the most to me took place at my favorite flea market during my brief and arduous tenure in Nashville. There is a little old lady there, I’d wager in her late 80s at least, that always had the best jewelry caskets. After a few months of routinely cleaning her out she finally asked what I did with all of them. I coyly informed her that I mostly displayed what most people would consider morbid keepsakes in them. Much to my surprise she was overjoyed. She then proceeded to tell me that in the “Victorian days” it was fashionable for women to have “a lot of hair, you know, down there.” She informed me that it was common for the “ladies of the evening to keep that area shaved and neat, for hygienic purposes. So they wore these crotch wigs down there!”, she exclaimed excitedly, but then grew frustrated that she couldn’t remember the term. I knew, by the way, but how could I possibly stop this? She began rattling off every “m” word she could come up with, “moogle, murphy, moo moo, no that’s a dress or sorts.” Finally she clapped her hands together and shouted “MERKIN” and then high-fived me. To this day that is the best high five I’ve ever received.
HM: Have you ever come across something that was somehow too weird for you to buy? What about something that you really wanted but, for whatever reason, you didn’t get and still think about today. What’s the one big thing that got away?
NG: This is a legitimately painful topic for any collector. I have two of these, one was due to my own mistake, the next was out of my budget eternally.
First one is totally cut and dry, I lost an auction because I set my alarm based on a different time zone. I’m still really mad at me for that, but it gets worse. It was an antique “witch killing kit”, a very ornate metal tube with a stake, a few sticks for kindling, a bit of rope for binding and a scroll with a prayer that somehow was intended to justify murdering someone. I imagine it was most likely from the 1800s and akin to the vampire hunting kits and not something you’d pick up at the general store circa 1600s. Anyway it sold for under $100, much to my chagrin
The second item is a snapshot of Jim Jones doing his thing before he did that other thing. That combines two of my most sought after items, memorabilia from cults that ended in mass death and obscure photographs. Since the thrill of the hunt is so important to me, I couldn’t justify the price tag.
HM: Is there anything you won’t buy, either for yourself or the shop?
NG: No hate group memorabilia of any kind. Otherwise as long as it isn’t illegal, anything goes.
HM: With regard to your own collection, you mentioned how much you prize things found in free boxes or gifts you’ve received. What are some of your most favorite items and where did you find/how did you come to receive them?
NG: The honest answer would be a few gifts from friends, but the things I hold dearest, I don’t often share. That being said, I was recently digging through a box of mail in an abandoned wedding chapel and found a stack of nudes from the early 1900s, so I’m going with that.
HM: What’s you personal collecting holy grail? The one specific thing you desperately want above all other things.
NG: A polycephalous or “two-headed” human specimen since we’re talking about “the big one”. If I were to pick something realistic, I’d say anything related to Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate.
HM: You recently acquired an assortment of real human skulls for your shop. What would you like done with your own mortal remains? Do you fancy your body or parts of you ending up in someone else’s collection?
NG: I would love to say something deep like I envision my remains on display in a museum I curated as my legacy, but I’m going to answer this the same way I did when someone asked me the same question before I ever even dreamed about Cemetery Gates: when I die I want Michael McDonald to cover any Three 6 Mafia song of his choosing (but I kind of hope it’s “Tear da Club Up” or “Who Run It”) at my funeral and then everyone does a line of my ashes and high-fives each other.
HM: What are the best ways for people to keep up to date with Cemetery Gates?
NG: Instagram is currently where I communicate most things related to the brand. I leak info on upcoming products and occasionally run sales from the stories feature. A new website is in the works and there will most likely be a newsletter feature for those who are so inclined.
Photos by Daylynn Lambi.