Everywhere you go, they dot the countryside. Every decent-sized town has one, and many smaller ones too. They lease exhibit space at every meeting of geologists. They range in size from huts to huge. They're rock shopssometimes funky, sometimes sublime. Are they good for geology? Of course they are, all of them.
Rock-Shop Staples: Carvings, Crystals, Crinoids
The shelf space at rock shops is usually dominated by pretty things, some of them with deeper beauty.
The dishes and bookends of stained and polished stone, the tchotchkes like little carved animals and hematite heartsthose are OK. Even the cheapest examples satisfy the craving we all have for interesting things to look at and use. At scientific meetings, I see geoscientists swarm around these as avidly as the rest of us.
More appealing to me are the mineral crystal specimens. Bristling purple amethyst, spiky steely stibnite, rounded green malachite, blocky brassy pyrite and many others are standard at every rock shop. Shops have these minerals in higher quality than anything most of us could collect ourselves. They arouse the ancient fascination with geometric form and uncanny purity that minerals present to us in a world that is otherwise organic in shape. I think every person on Earth should own at least one natural crystal. The contemplation and study of crystals was at the very base of modern science.
Every rock shop also has fossils, usually shark teeth and trilobites and brachiopods and crinoids. Lately, polished belemnites have become a default too. The great lesson of fossils is that they are records of actual living things, now extinct, that looked and lived very differently than today's living things. With the application of genuine curiosity, anyone can follow the clear explanation that Darwin laid out and learn why fossils are a prime line of evidence for evolutionary biology.
Rock shops also serve a large set of people who have adopted rocks as part of a hobby. Lapidaries are people who love to make beautiful things of stone by carving, polishing or cutting it. They're always looking for interesting "rough" stones to work with, whether it's one of hundreds of different varieties of agate or an exotic metamorphic rock.
There's a whole universe of crystal practitioners that rock shops cater to. Crystal people seem to have a discourse as dense and arbitrary as astrology. From simple quartz spears to the most exotic species, every mineral is given a role in the crystal cosmos, and dealers are happy to supply them all.
Jewelry makers haunt rock shops for fresh ingredients, ranging from garnet beads to cut gems and tumbled stones. Many rock shops will also carry related supplies and tools.
To me, the most important items in rock shops are those that help a visitor go deeper into geology. Basic tools like magnifiers and streak plates are the foundation for self-education. Boxed sets of rock and mineral specimens offer a way for people to study well-identified examples and extend their knowledge into the world outside their own front doors. Books on identifying rocks and minerals can support a lifetime's self-directed learning.
Every rock shop seems to have those tiny bottles of water with gold leaf in them, and bags of colorful pebbles. They have magnets for the fridge. Watching a child's response to these can bring back all the raw fascination that led us to learn about basic physics and chemistry, and ideally remind us of the universe's mystery.
Rocks and minerals are not just for kids, either. Homeschoolers and other conscientious parents find that helping their children learn helps them learn, or just remember what they learned once themselves. People who have retired from a career in science or technology write to me to say that they have taken up geology. To all of these learners, I would recommend the rock shop before the museum.
Charms of the Rock-Shop Business
Each item in every rock shop is the product of a small business somewhere. They might be a family mine in Brazil, a cooperative of carvers in India or a lone artisan out in America's high weeds, but the suppliers of the world's rock shops are not multinationals with stock-market symbols. Even the book publishers are small and devoted.
I usually pull over and visit rock shops when I travel. Yes, each one usually has the same basic set of things, just like a grocery does. But each one also represents an owner and a locality. I ask about both and am seldom disappointed. Wherever I go, the local country has its own mineral specialties, its own artisan communities, its own audiences. Those are just as worthy as the local geology.