“He comes out of the car, and he obviously took that time to put on a bulletproof vest, ‘cause he’s a Montana cop just driving in the middle of the boonies. He sees a Prius, two golden retrievers, a bunch of teddy bears shoved in the back of this car, and then he shines a light on a couple lesbians, covered in blood, smiling, and just waiting patiently for him. He comes up, and he’s like, ‘So, what’re you ladies up to?’”
Ryan Moulton sits next to her wife, Lisa, in their shop, The Room of Lost Things, on Santa Fe and 10th in the Art District, as she recounts the 2016 summer shenanigans. Two of their hairless sphynx cats wander the room, which is filled to the brim with odds and ends you might see in a horror film: preserved animals in jars, skulls, bones, doll parts, photos of medical abnormalities, a vintage monkey toy with a creepy grin.
Behind Lisa hangs a taxidermied, black goat head, modified to include a predator mouth with an upside-down pentagram carved in his skull, but even he may not be the most bizarre item in this marvelous treasure trove, supplied with Denver’s finest oddities.
“I would say an oddity is something that invokes a strange emotion or feeling in you,” Ryan said, “from antique medical equipment from the early 1900s that just makes you go, ‘Oh my God; I’m so glad I didn’t have to have my teeth drilled with that thing,’ to, like, really cool critters that have passed away that have genetic deformations.”
It’s a Monday, so the shop is closed, but it’s clear in two hours that a handful of people attempted to open the locked, front door. The other six business days are nothing but hustle.
Day-by-day, Ryan and Lisa balance the storefront, treasure hunting at estate sales, thrift stores, or scouting down some roadkill, all the while perfecting new inventory and coordinating consignments, but it’s easy to forget that The Room of Lost Things is still a business in its infancy.
Growing up, Ryan embraced items that could serve a renewed purpose and the idea that objects themselves have unique personalities. Finding and repairing broken paintball guns and the occasional dumpster dive eventually led to Ryan’s attendance at Colorado Film School in 2011 pursuing art direction, where she learned to create props from free, found materials.
During that same time, Ryan began crafting walking sticks for local, metaphysical store Herbs & Arts, which sold out the same day they went on the shelf. The broke college student soon discovered that finding teeth and bones to add to her custom creations would be even more lucrative. So, she turned to YouTube to teach herself about bone cleaning and taxidermy, laying the early foundation of what is now The Room of Lost Things.
Lisa always knew she wanted to be an artist in some form. She got her bachelor’s in photography and fine arts, and though fresh out of school, she knew that alone wasn’t enough to get going.
“I never knew I was going to own an oddities shop, but I always wanted to own my own business,” Lisa said. “We came together at the perfect time, because I knew I wanted to do something for myself and not work for a company that I wasn’t going to go anywhere with.”
Ryan and Lisa first met in Denver while dating other partners in 2013. Lisa left to finish her degree, relationships concluded, and once she returned, she and Ryan hit it off.
Ryan recalled one of their first trips as a couple, “We passed a dead deer on the way to the campsite, and I was like, ‘Ah, I wanna get that so bad,’ and she’s like, ‘Let’s get it! I wanna learn how to gut things!’ So we threw it on top of our boat, strapped it down, went to the campsite, called in the permit. … I thought, ‘Man, she’s freakin’ hardcore.’ I didn’t think I was going to meet another lesbian so into this with me.”
Ryan and Lisa started collaborating, finding and putting together unique creations and selling them on Craigslist. They got involved with the First Friday Art Walk in May 2016 to find a small space to display some of their oddities during the monthly event. People were so excited about the emerging, exclusive stop that lines formed out the door and down the stairs from the small space they rented on Sante Fe that summer.
It was that summer Ryan and Lisa embarked on the aforementioned Montana trip to visit Ryan’s grandparents and impulsively snagged a dead, 700-pound elk on the side of the road after midnight.
Sporting headlamps, they spent more than eight hours cutting the massive animal apart to fully transport it, over time electing to remove their soaked, wrist-length gloves. The cop who stopped to investigate the women, “covered in blood, like a gory, scary, serial killer scene, but with a road-kill elk,” Ryan recalled, ultimately helped them secure the proper permit to remove the animal on Ryan’s phone before sticking around for another half hour to gleefully watch the action unfold.
“Man, we’ve had a few situations like that. I don’t think I would ever do it again,” Lisa laughed.
They soon moved to another, permanent location on Santa Fe, their first spot resembling a real storefront. Ryan and Lisa bonded with the owners of Ninni & Foffa’s, who eventually offered a larger, neighboring space for The Room of Lost Things in January 2017. They consider Ninni & Foffa’s their sister store, and said their business wouldn’t be here today without Edie and Marie next door.
Ryan proposed about five months later, and the chaos of running a new business was now compounded by an additional, major life event. She admitted they pushed things a little quicker than they would’ve after Trump’s election, for fear of what that would mean for marriage in the future. The two finally tied the knot in June of last year, and the shop came with them.
“We didn’t have that many flowers, but we had a ton of greenery, and we added a bunch of our favorite oddities to the center pieces, and it was just gorgeous,” Ryan said.
“The hardest part about planning the wedding was also owning the business,” Lisa added. “It’s a full gig. Our lives were just a little bit chaotic back then, but we’re happy that we’re married.”
Ryan and Lisa have settled into the flow of married life and running a business, but it’s not without challenges. Aside from being busier than ever before, being a women-run business specializing in the sometimes grimy and grisly work can incite odd responses, from people they see day-to-day to other professionals doubting their expertise while haggling and treasure hunting.
“They would probably see it as more of a man-run industry,” Lisa said. “I get a kick out of it, honestly. Yeah, I own this place. I cut animals up. It almost adds to the fun of the store, like, ‘What? Women own this shop?’”
While they sometimes shock their customers and colleagues, Ryan and Lisa often receive surprises of their own, like gaining a vegan following who know the owners prioritize keeping their stock cruelty-free or occasionally hearing from producers about appearing on TV. They look forward to doing more exploring and expanding, hoping to open a second store at some point.
For now, the Moultons are busy enough maintaining the fantastical shop and community they cultivated, constantly restocking with carefully scouted and personally crafted treasures so enticing, you won’t be able to help yourself from taking home one of their lost things when you stop by.
“I know that our store seems like we really love death, but it’s actually we really love life,” Ryan said. “We love to celebrate it and the beauty in it, and it’s like you get to take home a piece of it when you get something from here.”
Photos by Veronica L. Holyfield