A New Terrarium Shop Brings Together Life and Death

When Amber Hage-Ali was younger, she kept her unique hobby a secret. She would collect found curiosities: Flowers, butterflies and fragmented bones. As she got older she began recreating the environments in which she found the specimens. She would arrange mini-worlds that froze the way she saw nature.

Now, Hage-Ali’s fringe hobby is no longer a secret as she shares her mini-worlds with strangers all over Denver in The Terrorium Shop. Her goal has always stayed the same, though. She aims to preserve nature and create beautiful displays that showcase the process of decay and regrowth. Hage-Ali wants to give Earth’s creatures a second chance at life. She describes it as a magical process.

At The Terrorium Shop, Hage-Ali and her partner, Ian Johnson, bring this goal to life. The couple sells Terroriums, a play on the modern terrarium incorporating skulls and bones with living foliage. The store also sells mini-worlds of preserved nature, other curiosities, house plants, floral, taxidermy and other nature-inspired art created by local artists.

“We gather those elements that you would find out on hikes and put them all in one accessible place,” Hage-Ali said.

Johnson and Hage-Ali met in Manitou Springs at a small dive bar attached to an arcade. “Instead of bringing me flowers Ian gifted me with bones that he found on his hiking and hunting trips,” Hage-Ali said. “That’s how he ultimately won my heart over.”

In 2017, briefly after Hage-Ali and Johnson met, Hage-Ali began sharing her mini-worlds with others. The journey began when she gifted Johnson a Terrorium as a holiday present. After receiving the present, Johnson pushed Hage-Ali to share her work with others. She began selling her Terroriums at local crafts shows and consigning with other local businesses. In May 2019, the couple moved their business into a brick and mortar in the Berkeley neighborhood of Denver.

“I really want to bring a piece of the mountains to the city and make it more accessible because not everyone actually has the time or the luxury to be able to get out to the mountains every weekend or during the week,” Hage-Ali said. “We really want to incorporate some of our favorite elements into the store. You’ll find a lot of local Colorado animals that are all ethically sourced.”

Hage-Ali and Johnson both work hard to ensure their creations are sustainable and ethical. Most of the specimens come from roadkill and animal control. They collect everything legally and do all of the processing themselves. When out and about in the Colorado wilderness, their chief bone finder is their dog, Sage.

To create their Terroriums, Johnson begins by drilling a hole in the bottom of a glass terrarium. This distinguishes Terroriums from other terrariums, Johnson described, because it allows for the necessary drainage to ensure long-lasting beautiful pieces. After that, Hage-Ali and her green thumb take over to create an intricate design between plants and bones.

Hage-Ali and Johnson also provide classes on preservation and creation in the shop. They teach classes on taxidermy, bone processing, and making their mini-worlds. You can even take a class on building your own jackalope.  In the future, the couple hopes to open a taxidermy school and increase society’s appreciation for the underrated art of taxidermy.

“We love sharing what we do in the store and our pieces, but we also want to give people the tools to do that (preserve nature) themselves and put their own spin on it,” Hage-Ali said.

The couple hopes their customers feel rejuvenated and refreshed in their store. The magic of Colorado is in the nature of the state, the couple described, and they want everyone to experience this in some way.

“The thing that I really absolutely love is the fact that you get to interact with the piece and become a part of that process because you are facilitating it by taking care of it and watering it,” Hage-Ali said.

The Terrorium Shop continues to bring the couple closer together. Hage-Ali and Johnson love being able to tackle new challenges together, express their creativity and share their hobbies with others.

“We’ve heard from a number of people as soon as you walk in the place it has a magical feel. It’s just growth,” Johnson said.

Experience nature in a new way, escape the city life and take a breath of fresh air at The Terrorium Shop.

All photography by Adrienne Thomas.

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