Heritage Living Center

Through the Looking Glass: Helena’s Curiosity Shop

Barry Ferst

By Aaron Parrett

Tucked away between a pawn shop and a nail salon in the heart of Last Chance Gulch in Helena resides one of the most unusual little shops you’re likely to run across in Montana. Its walls are adorned with historic photos in elegant frames, 1940s comic book covers, and random curios you can’t help but stop and look at. The sign on the window reads “Curiouser and Curiouser,” a quote from Alice in Wonderland, and if you are fortunate enough to wander in some afternoon, you too will feel you’ve fallen down some delightful rabbit hole.

Proprietor Barry Ferst opened the shop the same day he retired from teaching philosophy at Carroll College. “I always wanted to live in an art gallery,” Barry explained as he showed me around. “This is fun for me. I enjoy talking to people, and I like to share my love of kitsch.”

All around the shop are elaborate, interactive sculptures Ferst makes from ordinary objects. They often look like cabinets or “boxes” with moving parts and familiar artifacts of American culture. One piece, for example, involves a half dozen Barbie dolls; another is composed of 1950s toy rockets and space-age memorabilia. “Everything in the shop is for sale,” he told me. “Except for the Jackalope.” He points at a taxidermy mount on the back wall, a white rabbit with slightly hooked antlers. “I had to hunt him for three weeks,” he chuckled.

Originally from Chicago, Ferst earned a PhD in Philosophy from Tulane University in New Orleans. He took a job teaching Philosophy at Carroll in 1980, where he was a beloved professor until 2022. “I was influenced by my father,” he said. “My father, who was an architect, said, ‘You can do anything with your life, but I want you to know something about art.’ So I got some oil paints and tried my hand at oils, copying famous pieces, a Rauschenberg, for example. From my father I learned to look at things closely. ‘Always look,’ he would say. In grad school, I made a list of ten museums I had to see, all over the world. And I have visited all of them, some many times.”

Ferst was also inspired by his uncle Max Abramovitz, who was himself a famous architect and artist who had attended the École des Beaux-Arts in France. “I painted for a while, but I realized I like to make things. And I like kitsch. So I started making these pieces,” he said, sweeping his arm around the room. “It’s outsider art—I have no formal training as an artist, no MFA.”

He explained that “kitsch” is ordinary stuff that is elevated to “art.” Ordinary tchotchkes or “tacky” artifacts like Barbie dolls, for example, when put in the context of an artistic sculpture acquire a new aesthetic meaning. Ferst taught aesthetics at the college for decades, so he can discuss art and literature and the theories behind them at a highbrow level if asked. But it is eminently clear that the most important element in everything he does is to have fun. Fun is perhaps the best way to describe the shop and everything in it.
As customers trickle in, he welcomes them and happily guides them through the gallery, explaining how to push buttons and pull levers to make the sculptures do things. His enthusiasm for his collection of curiosities is contagious, and if people wander in perhaps a little confused, they can’t help but leave with a smile.

I noticed that few of the pieces have prices, even though everything (except the Jackalope!) is for sale. “Most of the pieces are $300 or $400,” he told me. “That larger one, I call it ‘Fate Calls,’ is $1800. But I set the price according to how long they take me to build. I’m probably losing money, or could charge more, but that’s my formula.”

In addition to Ferst’s original art pieces, Curiouser and Curiouser features a veritable library of philosophy and history and art books for sale, as well as dozens of gag gifts. One such gift is a “Do it yourself Vasectomy Kit,” made by PrankGiftBoxes.™. There are racks of vintage ties, walls adorned with unusual vintage posters, and a check-out counter wallpapered with actual credit cards. My personal favorite was an antique sign in the corner advertising the old southern “Piggly Wiggly” grocery store chain.

Fair warning: if you visit Curiouser and Curiouser, you’ll have a difficult time pulling yourself away. It’s a wonderful way to while away an afternoon. And yes—it will be an afternoon, because Dr. Ferst keeps curious hours as well: “I’m open 3-5 pm Thursdays and Fridays,” he said, and smiled. “And 1–4 pm Saturdays. And maybe Sundays, or whenever else I feel like it.” MSN

Curiouser and Curiouser is located at 429 N. Last Chance Gulch in downtown Helena, Montana.

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