Apartment tour: Curator of curiosities

This Jackson Heights space bears more resemblance to a museum with sleeping quarters than a one-person apartment.

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  • "When you live like this, you forget that having this much stuff isn't the...

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  • "My mother gave me my first mask: A wooden one you'd find in a gift shop."

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  • Drake relaxes on his fake taxidermied bear rug

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"When you live like this, you forget that having this much stuff isn't the...

Photographs: Imogen Brown

To say that Mike Drake has a lot of stuff would be an understatement. In fact, after handing in the renter's insurance application for his 800-square-foot Jackson Heights apartment, the New Jersey native received a phone call from an Allstate representative who had—due to the lengthy itemized list of the apartment's contents—mistaken his abode for a retail space. "I'm naturally a collector, and when you collect so many different things, this is what happens," says Drake, the director of special projects for Mezco Toyz and author of four books.

He describes his one-bedroom as a "mad-scientist laboratory that's inspired by the American Museum of Natural History" and says displaying his many treasures is an art form. "If you group like things and arrange it properly, it won't look like junk—even if it technically is," Drake says, pointing out the assemblage of almost 200 dental molds that he's accumulated over the years from dentists... who'd otherwise simply dump them in the trash. Also arranged in vignettes are more than 120 autographed and framed Playbills (he attended every play and personally acquired the signatures at the stage door), two display cases stuffed with more than 100 Frankenstein items ("My father drew a Frankenstein picture when he was younger, I framed it, and that started that part of the collection."), a dozen phrenology skulls ("Well, 13 if you count the one novelty piece.") and about 60 wooden masks, including several Japanese Noh masks. "There are some things, however, that I only need one of," he says before correcting himself. "I suppose I don't need any of this—I just want it." Solo items in his collection include a human-shaped fruit from the [supposed] Thai Nareepol tree, a fake taxidermied bear rug and a shrunken head. "More than one shrunken head would just be overkill," he says.

As any collector of highly particular items will tell you, it's hard running a museum of artifacts. "People know I like phrenology heads, so they keep giving me this Asian acupuncture head, which isn't what I collect. I saved one, but every time I'm gifted another one, I just sell it on eBay." And the Internet is a whole other beast: "It's helped to track stuff down, but it's also harder to find a genuine item." And while Drake's collection would look more than complete to any outsider, he's still on the hunt for at least one more item: an undertaker's skull. "It's a plaster form of a human face that morticians pour wax over and practice restoring someone's face in the event of an open-casket funeral."

How anyone can live in a minimally decorated home is beyond Drake. "I have only one bare wall in my entire apartment, and it's because I can't drive a nail or screw into it," he says, which suggests that he'll need to upgrade to a bigger space someday. "I'm sure I'll move eventually, but it's not a pleasant experience when you have this much stuff. It took me seven months to unpack and group everything, and I still have eight boxes that haven't even been opened."

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Why Jackson Heights?

"I have several friends in Manhattan, but I needed at least 800 square feet for my collections, so that wasn't really an option," says Drake. Luckily, his broker helped him find a space he loves. "There are five subways right here, and I love the diversity. Just by walking one block in a different direction, I feel like I'm in a different neighborhood."

Favorite restaurants

* Indian Taj (32-25 74th St between 32nd Ave and Northern Blvd, 718-651-4182) "A great Indian buffet, friendly staff, great food and a price that can't be beat. You'll find me there almost every Friday night."

* La Boina Roja Steak House (7705 37th Ave at 77th St, 718-424-6711) "Unbelievably large portions at incredible prices with a staff so friendly they make you feel like family."

* Chung Ki Wa(40-06 74th St at Broadway, 718-478-0925) "Satisfies my hankering for pajun every time! I always leave happy and sated!"

Shops

* The Northern Blvd 99 Cents Store (8309 Northern Blvd at 83rd St, 718-639-6368) "There are amazing bargains to be had here. A coworker recently laughed when I handed him a Boond-Ade--brand sterile adhesive strip, but it stopped him from bleeding just the same."

* Chong Hap Market (72-11 Broadway at 73rd St, no phone) "When that 8am craving for dried squid hits me on a Saturday morning, this is the place to go!"

Other haunts

* American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th St; 212-769-5100, amnh.org) and Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium (234 W 42nd St between Seventh and Eighth Aves; 212-398-3133, ripleys.com) "I visit both of these at least once a month. They're the inspiration behind the arrangement of my apartment."

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