Words by Evan Harms
On its own, Brook Park is a pretty weird place, sandwiched between Cleveland’s doughiest suburbs of Parma and Berea. It hooks around the airport, consisting of a Ford plant and some notable bars, plus a surplus of Union halls. The day I went, it was fairly gray and looked particularly post-industrial.
I-480 crosses I-71 and forms the Northeast corner of the town. Two major highways, plus additional airport traffic, makes the switch from eastbound to south at least a little nerve wracking, but getting off the highway and rolling along the street with what appears to be a dilapidated factory on one side and the highway on the other makes for a stereotypically abysmal Rust Belt situation.
This was only further enforced by the fact that our destination was a UAW hall — the Local 1250, aka Shelton Tappes Hall. I do not know who Shelton Tappes was, though the dark brick and large glass panels on the outside of the midcentury building indicated he was a man of simple and classic taste.
Rounding the first corner, I was greeted by a large-ish man with a little bit of scraggly facial hair. Not explicitly muscular, but definitely strong. Around his neck was a large snake. Being not even a fraction of the herpetologist my partner is, I can’t properly identify it but I believe it was some sort of boa constrictor. This was no simple get-together of union types, this was the Cleveland Reptile Show & Sale.
Upon entering the hall and paying our $5 entry fee, I was flung directly into the fold, first starting off with a number of hunter-green baseball caps embroidered with all sorts of critters and then moved on to an intersection of dead bugs and bats applied to suburban mom-style home decor.
As far as actual live animals went, the function had not limited itself to mere reptiles. Amphibians and rodents (some as food, some as pets) were also present. Lots of the smaller critters were in tiny plastic circular boxes with some pellets or wood chips. Larger animals, like a giant mata mata turtle, occupied giant plastic bins. It was primarily low-frills, but some dealers had coolers and heaters and specific tanks for their creatures, one going so far as to provide fake grass and branches like a brick-and-mortar pet shop.
Some vendors were more focused on the selling of crafts and animal supplies rather than the beasts themselves, but all vendors embodied a unique passion for the scaled and slimy. People from all walks of life were there, too. Biker-types with beards and unwashed faces, adults recently evolved from their scene stage, little kids wringing their hands at the sight of all these legitimately scary people animals and the parents and grandparents who seemed to truly love their experience.
I got the impression that the function was quasi-legal. The organizers had, of course, set up a list of rules and guidelines for the vendors that they reportedly screened beforehand, but one had to wonder how one might come across all these varieties of often very expensive animals. But, for every questionable seller, there was a friendly and apparently ethical one. One vendor went so far as to include pamphlets for the Northeast Ohio Herpetological Society (which meets Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at the Rocky River Nature Center, FYI.)
Regardless, the authentic quirkiness of Cleveland shone through at this sale. It wasn’t twenty-something yuppies doing a bit or an art project in a post-gentrified neighborhood, it was a weird collection of individuals in a notoriously working-class community creating a community around their love of all things cold-blooded (plus rodents).