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Nanaimo collector always fascinated by the unusual

Sep 09 2012

To walk into Trader Jake's China Steps Emporium is like entering another world. I'm immediately adrift in a cloud of nostalgia, transported back to a dreamy childhood trip I took as an eight-year-old to Niagara Falls: the oddity museums filled with four-leaf-clovers, double-sided mirrors, stuffed twoheaded kittens and giant clothing once worn by the world's tallest man.

That is precisely the point, says owner Jake Niddrie, presiding over his vast domain of peculiarities with a pompadour and a devilish grin.

Niddrie started out with a store on Bruce Avenue that was essentially opened out of necessity, to liquidate some of his growing collection. However it got too busy, too fast, and he soon felt that the heart and soul of what he was doing was getting lost.

"As soon as it becomes a job it's not fun," says Niddrie, who emphasizes that he is first and foremost a collector. "I'm the complete opposite of every other businessman you'll meet."

As a collector, he goes through phases. At present he is intently focused on the most unusual and dark oddities he can dig up: human bones, shrunken heads (some "with souls still attached"), strange taxidermy specimens, old medical devices, and items with a heavy history such as weapons that have killed.

I'm actually sitting on a swastika-emblazoned casket flag in the back of his shop, something that once would have been draped over the coffin of a dead Nazi during a funeral.

He shows me a chinchilla in a jar from a scientific lab and the tailbone of a dead teenage girl from a museum in Europe.

Niddrie says his interest in collecting unusual items, many of which are not in the store, is due in part to their rarity, but more specifically because of his respect for and fascination with history.

"I've got cult stuff, Nazi stuff. Not that I support that by any means, but it is part of our history, and a lot of us sweep it under the doormat," says Niddrie. "It's lock-and-key, swept under, incin-erated, not talked about, and that's what makes the hunt fun."

For Niddrie, it's all about "the hunt," something he admits is an addiction.

He acknowledges he could do a brisk business in the "teacups and doilies" market, but that's not where his interests lie.

"Money is just paper in my pocket to go out and buy more stuff," he says with a laugh.

Aside from the vintage circus, sideshow, freak-show items, Niddrie is also completely enamoured with personal artefacts.

Unlike for many collectors, the more personalized an item - a photo with an inscription on the back, a cane with initials carved in it, an old varsity jacket - the more value it holds for him. It is all part of the intricate and intimate story of a person's life, he says.

Niddrie grew up as a "hippie in an old ramshackle barn" in Cedar, an area with a rich local history.

He remembers, as a kid, digging around and finding treasures in old mine shafts and abandoned houses, something he is nostalgic for in what he says is today's safety-conscious, cookie-cutter, plasticized world.

His obsession with the personal, and with collecting in general, really kicked into high gear after a fire in 2002 at his parents' home in Cedar that destroyed much of his childhood belongings.

"That's what really got me started with absconding everything of a personal nature: from photographs to ledgers to war records, letters from the war," says Niddrie, who adds that he is "amazed" that people could throw such things away, and feels a sense of responsibility to safeguard them.

"One photo can be worth more than a brick of gold," he muses.

Approximately a year before the fire, Niddrie was diagnosed with Crohn's disease.

He says that undergoing multiple life-saving operations and months of recovery in the hospital gave him an appreciation for the medical community and further fuelled his fascination with old hospital devices and assorted medical quackery.

"That's what really made me decide to do what I loved," says Niddrie, of his near-death experience.

"You know, life's a short kick at the can and you gotta do things for the right reasons."

Trader Jake encourages anyone with unusual artifacts and items they would like to sell or trade to contact him at his store.

His Emporium is located at No. 4 China Steps in downtown Nanaimo, or call (250)-741-6429.

" Writer Julie Chadwick's column appears on Saturday. Contact her at jchadwick@ nanaimodailynews.com