Of the many people I do not expect to find inside Eau Claire’s Antique Emporium, Susan B. Anthony is near the top of the list. Yet there she is, her marble bust a near perfect representation of one of America’s leading social reformers.

“I didn’t know it was her when I bought it,” explains 69-year-old Hugh Passow, who’s been running the Antique Emporium for the past 40 years. “And the people at the auction didn’t know either. They were selling so much great art, who wanted some dirty, old woman statue?”

Hugh did. And as he later learned, that “dirty, old woman statue” was sculpted by Leonard Volk—the same artist who famously molded the life mask of Abraham Lincoln’s face. In other words, the hands that once held Lincoln’s face also touched this marble.

Leonard Volk’s Susan B. Anthony statue is but one of a hundred thousand items Hugh’s accumulated within the Antique Emporium on Main Street. Others include his taxidermied hyena (“It’s the biggest one you’ll ever find—even bigger than the one in the Field Museum!”) and a Civil War era stoneware eagle (“To make this in clay without a shrinkage line or crack is unbelievable!”). Add to these a hammerhead shark, an ostrich, and a giant moose head, and Hugh’s menagerie seems nearly complete. Yet as Hugh and I roam the emporium’s first floor, it’s clear we’re only getting started.

“You’ve sure got a lot of unique things in here,” I say.

“That’s because I always looked for the odd stuff, the more interesting and unusual stuff,” Hugh explains. For more than three decades, Hugh’s annual auction trips regularly resulted in a trailer’s worth of treasures. Rather than stock up on staples like depression glass and oak furniture, Hugh always preferred buying “against the grain.” Which probably explains the sideshow mummy he keeps on the second floor. And why walking into the Antique Emporium today feels like entering a museum, or a time machine, or your grandparents’ attic.

Hugh is equally eclectic: a collector, a curator, an entrepreneur, and an historian, too. The more we talk, the more I realize he may inadvertently hold another title: memory keeper of Eau Claire.

You need only look a bit beyond the ostrich and the hyena to notice the local photos lining the walls, from the century-old images of the Gillette Safety Tire Company picnics to the 1940s-era Eau Claire police department posing on the courthouse steps. Atop an Abraham Lincoln bust rests a horn which once called local lumberjacks to mealtime. And displayed to the right of the hammerhead is a 19th century flag for the Eau Claire chapter of the Germania Club—a fraternal organization from the era.

Such a world-class collection has garnered the attention of more than a few celebrities, including John Prine, Paul Simon, Johnny and June Cash—all of whom have spent hours roaming the store. It’s an experience I know myself, though more enjoyable when accompanied by a knowledgeable guide.

As I soon learn, Hugh can recount the story behind most every item in the place, though his own story is of interest, too. Born in Arcadia, he spent his elementary years accompanying his grandfather to the town dump—ostensibly to get rid of the family’s trash.

“The problem,” Hugh laughs, “is that we always brought more back than we took.”

“Let me get this straight,” I say. “Your love of antiques began at the dump?”

“Oh, in those days dumps were fabulous,” Hugh smiles. “There was great stuff in them all the time.”

By his early 20s, Hugh had traded in the dumps for the auctions, and for the next four decades, worked to curate the antique store right here in Eau Claire.

Today, the fruits of his labor are on full display for everyone who walks through his doors—from Currier & Ives prints to New Guinean masks.

Though by July 1, 2022, the Antique Emporium will close its doors for good.

“How do you feel about letting it go?” I ask.

“Well, I’m not very happy about it, but things change,” Hugh says. “I’m still in fairly good health, but that could change, too.”

It won’t be easy to auction off his collection, but he’s glad the building will receive the renovation it requires.

“The right people got it,” Hugh says, “and they’re going to fix it all up.”

He means Pablo Group, the Eau Claire real estate company who have plans to house within the building’s historic walls a co-working space, tenants, among other mixed uses.

“My baby will be in good hands,” Hugh says confidently.

The future seems a strange topic in a place so steeped in the past. But it’s an essential conversation. Especially since we Eau Clairians are now tasked with holding the mantle of our city’s memory. Hugh’s held it long enough. Now is our last chance to enter through Hugh’s doors and marvel at his collection. And perhaps, make our own memory.

Soon, the Antique Emporium is destined to reinvent itself yet again, just as it did when Hugh started the store back in 1985. As Pablo Group prepares to write the next chapter in the property’s history, we can only hope that its future remains as bright as its past. Surely it will, especially since they already have a pretty good lead on some incredible décor.

Might I suggest a Susan B. Anthony statue, or a Germania Club flag? Perhaps a stonewear eagle or a lumberjack horn?

There’s something for everyone at the Antique Emporium, but you’ve got to act now.

A piece of our past is going, going, nearly gone.