On a quiet, run-down street in Toronto, Canada, sits a small storefront with a bright red sign that reads, “Customers Wanted: No Experience Necessary.” The only explanation offered for this curious invitation is a large banner hanging above it depicting several vicious-looking dinosaurs. That banner reads, “Prehistoria.ca” and, in smaller letters, “Natural History Centre.”

Although the sign seems transparent enough, it does little to prepare anyone for what’s inside — real human skulls, among many other oddities.

Welcome to Prehistoria Natural History Centre & SkullStore Oddity Shop. Brothers Ben Lovatt and Jake Ouimette run the facility, half of which is dedicated to the retail of human and animal remains. The other half is a free museum, displaying a stunning array of natural artifacts. In addition to boasting the skulls and bones of almost every animal you could think of (extinct species included), this store is the only place in the country where one can legally purchase a human skull.

I’m determined to find out how and, more intriguingly, why?

So I meet with Lovatt, who identifies as a natural history professional. He walks me over to a tall black cabinet, which contains an assortment of real human bones for sale including vertebrae, collarbones, ribs and teeth, all nestled in little baskets. Beside them rest ten human skulls, displayed as casually as teacups in a country boutique. They’ll cost you $850 for one without a jaw up to around $1,400 for a completely intact specimen.

“Most of the human skulls on the market, I’d say 90 per cent plus are out of the medical field,” Lovatt explains. “Because every doctor needed a real human skull to work on to get their degree, every dentist needed to see real teeth before they’ve got some guy strapped to a table. Now the baby boomers are all retiring and they’re like, ‘I don’t want to move to Florida and take this skeleton with me!’”

Coincidentally, Lovatt says his customers are almost entirely medical professionals and artists. Right now, they’re buying up the brothers’ supply of human brain slices.

“We’re running low now,” Lovatt says. “Human soft tissue is nearly impossible to find.”

SkullStore began as a co-op to breed in captivity animals that would normally be pulled out of the wild for the pet trade. Lovatt started it after working in a pet store as a teen and becoming horrified by the way animals were imported; according to him, the fatality rate is 88 to 90 per cent.

Lovatt and Ouimette were working closely with a zoo when the Arab Spring began and borders closed. Suddenly more zoos, eager for colonies of animals they could no longer access easily, began contacting the brothers.

They expanded into dealing in the dead after Lovatt heard of a zoo’s burying a deceased lion. Lovatt speculated that it would have sold easily had it been taxidermied it into a majestic pose.

“Some banker will buy that because a lot of people who hunt don’t want to make the kill, they want the trophy. And if we take all the animals that die of natural causes and make them look like trophies, the money goes to conservation as opposed to guys with guns,” explains Lovatt.

The facility is still committed to conservation. It boasts a live reptile zoo and endangered tortoise breeding operation tucked in a tiny back room. Lovatt acquired the critters gradually by trading with independent zoos; the collection now includes poison dart frogs, a frilled dragon, a collared iguana, a bearded dragon and, markedly, a five-foot long Nile monitor lizard.

“He’s affectionately named Psycho, because when he’s hungry you don’t want to go in that cage,” Lovatt tells me. “We feed him through an air lock.”

The second portion of the museum’s back area is closed off with a thick black curtain. It’s in this small room with one stove, several large pots and a shelf of coolers that Ouimette cleans up to one hundred skulls at a time. Lovatt estimates they process 1,000 to 1,500 skulls per year using hot water, dish soap and hydrogen peroxide.

The process, Lovatt explains, has minimal environmental impact — any meat is donated to local zoos for food, the dish soap biodegrades, and hydrogen peroxide neutralizes.

“We’re just a very unique sort of morbid recycling center,” Lovatt says.

Speaking of morbid, for cleaning more delicate bones, a crew of flesh eating beetles does the job. The brothers keep them in a tank in the corner of the room. I hold my breath and peer in — they’re devouring a four-foot long snake.

The specimens that need processing typically arrive in coolers and multiple layers of plastic bags.

“The worst was when we had twelve beluga whale heads show up,” Lovatt tells me. “But we’re the only people in the world that have beluga whale skulls for sale. So it’s worth the hassle.”

Speaking of unique additions to the collection, Prehistoria has a two-faced goat that was stillborn on a farm (“That was a strange phone call,” says Lovatt), a fossilized Oviraptor egg and a fossilized dinosaur turd, which Lovatt encourages kids to touch when they visit. The complete skeleton of a whale that the brothers, using an Exacto blade and a pocketknife, salvaged from a beach in Nova Scotia, arcs over the front window.

And, resting modestly on a small shelf, are the first tools ever made in history by homo habilis, a species of the tribe Hominini, from which humans also descended. The brothers got them from Ontario’s Archeological Society.

“They’re the only ones on display in Canada, and we’ve got four of them,” Lovatt says, proudly.

As if the extensive contents and environmental efforts of the facility aren’t already cool enough on their own, they have also appeared in Hollywood blockbusters and television, such as Vikings, Planet of the Apes, Suicide Squad, and, recently, the newest season of Star Trek.

Super cool for sure, but being well known as a dealer of the dead also has a dark side — poachers, often selling endangered animals, frequently approach Lovatt.

“If you Google ‘buy skulls’ you find me first, which means the shadiest people in the world find us first,” Lovatt says.

He has worked closely with international wildlife protection agencies and the RCMP to shut down smugglers and poachers around the world.

“There’s actually a price on my head in Cameroon because we shut down a leg of a smuggling ring of chimps and baboons and gorillas,” Lovatt adds, nonchalantly.

Lovatt is extremely well versed in the complicated legalities and ethics of dealing in both human and animal matter. Surprisingly, dealing in human remains has comparatively less red tape surrounding it than other animals.

“Canadian Border Services told me humans are the only primate that isn’t restricted. And I said, ‘really?’ and they said, ‘well, when was the last time we were on the endangered species list?’” Lovatt explains.

While he might be legally allowed to receive and sell human skulls, there are plenty of rules that come into play on municipal, provincial, federal, United Nations and ethical levels.

“You can’t disrespect the dead,” Lovatt tells me. “So, you can’t take a skull and sledgehammer it for entertainment. You also can’t commercially trade in the remains of the First Nations of North America and you can’t disturb a gravesite.”

When it comes to animal remains, Lovatt encourages people to be prudent in their research if they are interested in buying.

“Ask … the tough questions: where is this from? How did it die? If someone won’t give you the answer, a poacher is making his living,” he tells me. “For every ten minutes I spend selling, I spend an hour making sure that that product is not going to damage the world or the historical record.”

He adds:

“You go on our website, you see thousands of products. It took me five years to be comfortable selling these products. You can’t even just go pick up a road kill raccoon and sell it. The laws are that tight.”

Indeed, the facility is explicit about informing visitors about its dedication to sustainability and ethical trade. The brothers have posted signs on many products explaining where and how they obtained them — most are from zoos, and many Canadian specimens are from Inuit contacts up north.

“Although we’ve got the biggest online oddity shop in the world right now, it isn’t the retail that we care about,” Lovatt explains. “That’s the byproduct of trying to build the education center.”

The pair have only had their current property for three years and bought their first skull six years ago, yet the business is blowing up.

“We want to have a bigger education center, we want to have a bigger reptile zoo,” Lovatt tells me. “Conservation is our number one focus.”

One of the final oddities Lovatt shows me is a fleshy white tube in a jar — it is, he tells me, a preserved lion anus. He says he called his brother an asshole one day, only to have his brother disappear into the back of the store and emerge with this jar, which he plopped in front of Lovatt.

“No,” Ouimette said, “this is an asshole.”

Good to know those who work with the dead as much as the living still have a sense of humor.

[all photos Sara Truuvert]