Friday, January 29, 2010

Coming Full Circle in Tucson

I often tell people I grew up in a rock shop. My earliest memory of the rock and mineral business goes way back to Levittown. I remember Mom rolling a small pickle jar over her thigh to polish some stones while we watched Rooti Kazootie (anybody else remember him?)

It took a long time but finally one day she emptied the special dirt (grit) and water out of the jar and the once plain old stones were smooth and sort of shiny. That was cool. After that we'd all sit there rolling jars of rocks across the rug while we watched Howdy Doody or Gerald Mc Boing Boing.

Then Mom decided we should should amp up the polishing, so Dad got us a rock tumbler . Wow! that was fantastic. We had entered the age of automation. That tumbler did all the work while we were at school or out playing or even when we went on vacation. As long as we changed the grade of the grit three times, we would eventually get beautiful shiny smooth stones.

I remember we'd come home from school every day to find out if it was time yet to empty the barrel. Finally, the day would come. Mom would carefully pour off the water and we'd fish out all the colorful stones onto a towel on the kitchen table. No Hope Diamond could ever be more beautiful than those first agates and bits of quartz. I have no idea what we did with all of those first efforts except take a baby food jar of water and grit into school for show and tell.

Sometime between then and when I was 14, Mom acquired lapidary equipment and began cutting and polishing cabochons. Not happy with the findings that were available, she also became an extremely accomplished silversmith, designing lovely jewelery. I still wear items Mom made me when I was a teenager.

Since she couldn't make shiny stones out of rough stones until she had the rough ones, the entire family got into the act and we became Rock Hounds. The youngest two were referred to as Pebble Pups but Denis and I were smart enough to learn just enough to be taken seriously as collectors so we avoided that term. I wasn't too keen on the whole idea until I got to be close to 15 and realized there were a lot of teenage boys in the Rock and Mineral Club!

Eventually, Mom was making a nice little amount of money selling her jewelry to friends and coworkers. The logical next step was to open a store. So we opened The Original Cha~lor Mineral House in November in a tiny, unheated niche on Park Street in Adams. Ma. Originally the space had been a hallway separating two sections of a building. When half of it was torn down they left the hall next to the diner. Dad and Denis and Terry painted it and speckled the floor with blobs and splatters of different colors. It looked pretty cool (for it's time) but was a dreadful surface to try to find the small polished stones that often got spilled on it.

By that time, I'd learned how to make many of the simpler pieces, although to my regret I never learned the smithing or lapidary part of the design work.

We sold our jewelry and rock specimens. Among the gifts we carried were imported onyx bookends and chess boards . The kids loved the tiny onyx donkeys, birds and elephants too. This was 1963 in a small town in Massachusetts, where one did most of their Christmas shopping at Woolworth's. These ubiquitous items one sees in every souvenir shop now, were unique and very welcome.

One Sunday afternoon, Mom and I drove to Windsor, Connecticut on a buying trip to The House of Windsor. I had never seen a wholesale warehouse before and I thought they sold everything . We bought some gift items and then I insisted on spending $14.00 of my hard earned babysitting money on a large mystery box of Holiday Craft materials. There was a small display of possible items that might be in the box and I went for it despite Mom's advice to simply buy something I knew was safe.

I was delighted when I opened the carton and discovered enough ribbons, holiday picks, and flowers to make over 60 corsages for Christmas. We went home and I got started so they were ready to go on display on the day after Thanksgiving. At an auction that same week, Mom found a small paper roller and cutter for gift wrap. We bought full sized rolls and cut them down to eight inches wide and I began wrapping all of our gift items for free and charging a small fee to custom wrap boxed gifts from other stores as well. Mom was very pleased at the outcome of my investment and at the first of the year I was named a partner in the business. I suspect that was probably for tax purposes or something but it sounded good. And I still use it on my resume.

A couple years later business was doing well enough to expand and the folks bought a store and several acres on the famed Mohawk Trail. Experiences there are worth a blog of their own and I'll get to it one of these days. I worked at that store until shortly after I ws married.

Later they moved to New Mexico and when Dad had retired took their Rock and Mineral business on the road as Workampers. Jim and I envied their freedom as they spent five or six months each year traveling the country and selling at shows as The Findings People.

Once I left the Chalor Mineral House I thought I'd left all the rocks behind. Fast forward til 1999. #2 son came home from working at Moaning Cavern Adventure Park in Valecito, CA and mentioned they needed someone for part time work. So I began working there, for about 8 weeks, at a wildlife exhibition. A bit later they hired me to work in the gift shop. My son was now an assistant manager, so he was technically one of my bosses (on paper). On my first day, I was dusting shelves and found myself in the corner with a feather duster brushing dust from a pile of mineral specimens. Suddenly, I was laughing out loud. I realized that I'd begun my retail career dusting rocks for my mom. Now I was dusting them for my son!

Another ten years have passed. In that time I have sold rocks, minerals, tumbled stones, and hundreds of little onyx donkeys in a total of six states. And this week I'll get to see where many of those gift shops and other tourist spots buy their merchandise. I'll be going to the Tucson Gem Shows with that same son and his wife as they choose some of this season's merchandise for the six outlets they furnish in California . But as I walk through all those displays I am pretty sure Mom will be with me too, telling me which ones to point out to Buttercup.

See ya down the road,

1 comment:

Old Newsie said...

A lovely tribute to Mom, little girl. Thank you. You have a good memory for some of the things I have long ago forgotten !