Kill Devil Hill
What’s behind opening a store? Nothing too enthralling—you come up with an idea, write a business plan, maybe apply for a loan, find a space, and well, open. But for Mary Brockman and Mark Straiton, the path that lead them to their shop Kill Devil Hill in Greenpoint, entailed a white-out blizzard, a long drive on a two lane highway through a wintery abyss, a frozen camera, a bearded mountain man named Frank, a wooly mammoth tusk, and a walrus skull.
It makes sense that such an interesting journey ended with such an eclectic shop. Entering Kill Devil Hill on Franklin Avenue is like stopping by your great-great grandparent’s garage sale. Finally, after living on American soil their whole lives they’ve decided to sell everything they’ve been hording in their basement since the turn of the century. I mean where else would you find a taxidermy muskrat, old wooden snowshoes, and a set of children's architectural building blocks made of chalk and linseed oil?
Perusing the goods, which range from 10 cent old timey candy to a $4,500 Navajo rug, is an adventure on its own, but what’s behind Kill Devil Hill has no price tag. It really all started for the couple, explains Straiton who loves to tell a good tale, on a drunken night while bowling at the Gutter in Williamsburg, but that is a whole other story.
A short time after that first night, Straiton and Brockman found themselves on their way to a town dead center in the middle of Montana to meet Frank. Two hours after their plane landed in more snow than either of them had ever seen, they were still driving to their destination with another two hours to go, and Straiton began to lose his shit.
“I was seriously freaking out, I haven’t known this girl that long, and we are driving in 16 below weather in the worst blizzard I have ever seen in my entire life,” he enthusiastically details. “‘What am I doing? What is going on? I am going to die out in Montana in the middle of nowhere, in the fucking snowdrifts.”
So Straiton makes them stop, he has to smoke a cigarette and take a deep breath. Out of the car and surrounded by white, he decides to snap a photo—there is no way anyone is going to believe that this is actually happening to him. He takes out the camera to point and shoot, but hears nothing but a click. It was so cold the shutter froze.
They didn’t need that picture; the couple arrived in Lewistown safely and were greeted by a sign that would make any New Yorker feel at home—a pizza shop. Ironically, the 82-year-old man they were on this journey to meet opened the first pizza joint ever to grace the state of Montana in the 1950s.
When Straiton speaks about Frank, a glimmer lights up in his eyes, like this bearded grizzly mountain character embodies everything he thinks a man should be.
“It’s so great to know that he is out there. When I met him, I was like I’ve had dreams about this guy. This is a man that someone would write a story about, I mean, Jack London writes about this dude. I just tell stories, Frank lives them.”
Frank is a distant friend of Brockman’s family, though she had never met him until this day. He looks just like one would picture a mountain man: white-beard, missing bits of fingers and all. He was originally from New Jersey, but after serving in WWII, Frank decided he could not deal with people anymore and moved to Montana to live in the mountains. He began to collect bones, antlers, and skulls and make them into art, lamps, and chandeliers. Animals shed their antlers every year, so there is an overabundance of material in Montana, and Frank has been reaping the benefits for years and years.
This is where Brockman and Straiton come in. Straiton has always collected antiques, even putting himself through college buying and selling old treasures, and Brockman paints, restores old clothing, and sews quilts, among many other things. So when Brockman’s mother asked if they could help sell Frank’s antler art on eBay, the couple couldn’t pass up another artistic endeavor. But Frank needed to meet them first, and they needed to see the goods.
Finally, after driving through the near white out, the duo make it to Frank’s home and after being sized up by the mountain man over a few beers, he feels comfortable enough to let them see the buried treasure.
“Imagine a basement the size of half a New York City block, floor to ceiling bones and antlers,” explains Straiton. “I don’t have the language enough to express my shock and awe at that moment. I couldn’t believe it.”
Frank owns a store too, but as Straiton says, everyone in Montana has bones. But deer antlers were just tip of the iceberg.
“He has wooly mammoth tusks, a species that has been extinct for hundreds of years! He has a walrus skull, tusk included, that has been scrimshawed by the Inuits. The stuff he has in there is amazing!”
That was it for the couple, and after they worked out a deal with Frank in which both sides left with their own “I’m ripping you off but you’re happy smile,” Straiton and Brockman knew their life was about to change—and it wasn’t going to be by selling antler art on eBay. Just days before, they were braving a blizzard on a two lane highway having no possible idea where they were going or if they were even going to make it there alive, and now they knew they had the foundation to create something that could be great.
“It was one of those moments when you are like thinking to yourself, I can’t fucking believe it. The shutter on the fucking camera froze! We were on the side of a fucking mountain! There was a snowdrift taller than me! And now I am in heaven. Girl of my dreams, this place is all a dream. I have died and gone to heaven.”
Brockman sweetly laughs next to Straiton as he enthusiastically tells the story in the back of the shop they have now owned together since May. When asked how she felt during that trip to Montana, Brockman simply states.
“Excited. Cold. It was the perfect happening.”
Back in New York after the expedition, Straiton was sitting in Brockman’s apartment and asked, “Can we just open a store?” And Brockman who has always wanted to do just that responds, “Yeah, we can open a store.”
But their idea for Kill Devil Hill involved more than just Frank’s bones and antler art, and the two began to go on road trips everywhere you could imagine to collect the eclectic range of goodies and vintage clothing they sell today. It’s everything you don’t realize you want until you start looking.
Despite the economy, the store is doing better than they ever imagined. With the massive influx of grunge culture onto the hipsters of Brooklyn and the winter weather upon us, it’s no wonder that plaid wool button-up shirts are currently their number one selling item. And these flannel wearing folks, you would think, are the same ones who want to deck out their boudoirs with taxidermy and feather arrows. As Mark says, they knew the “guys with haircuts and girls with angular bangs” would be into this kind of stuff and originally thought they would just sell to their friends. But when Kill Devil Hill opened, they realized this affinity for old timey Americana niche pieces stretches way beyond Williamsburg—and has given them stability in a time where stores, probably without such intriguing stories, are closing their doors everyday.
So stop by when you have some time to dig through the goods—Frank’s lamp made from bones, rawhide and black fringe, or the necklace composed of an entire snake vertebra, or maybe just some good old antlers by the pound.