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A shop utterly cool in countless ways

BY CAPTAIN D

WHEN IT COMES to intriguing Maine Shops, there's cool, very cool, and the Rock and Art Shop. While it's true that many Maine shops are cool in some way, the Rock and Art Shop on the Bangor Road in Ellsworth is utterly cool in countless ways.

I began to get the picture when I first glimpsed the place. Painted a bold orange/mango color, it stands out from way down the road. Parking my car, I noticed the little piles of precariously balanced rocks marking slots. Walking towards the shop on the white gravel path, I was greeted by fantastic metal sculptures of highly imaginative insects.

Entering the shop, the first thing I noticed was a very large geode split open to reveal countless purple gemstones. Looking about, there were any number of things competing for my attention How about a fossilized squid? Or a huge hunk of Malachite? Or a man-eating clam (the largest of all clams, and the largest of all seashells)?

The shop has the skull of an adult t-rex, the most ferocious dinosaur of them all. It is the only such skull in Maine on public display.

“Every item is hand-selected,” explains Tony Sohns, who since 2007 with his parents and two sisters has made this a closely-co-ordinated, family-run enterprise. “As we see it, every item has an exciting story to tell.”

All of the art in the shop if made in Maine. Gems are mined in Maine, cut in Maine, set in silver in Maine, and sold in Maine, all by Mainers. Tony says he can tell you who was involved in the creation of every bit of art in the shop.

“This is really unheard of,” Tony says. “And we sell it for a fraction of the price that most jewelry stores charge.”

Tony says his family has always been into nature. Although well-versed in many aspects of his natural surroundings, he says he was formally trained as “a bug guy” at a college in Oregon. He has traveled extensively throughout the United States, lecturing on various aspects of natural history.

“Have rocks, will travel,” he quipped.

Tony's excitement is infectious. “Most people don't realize how many wondrous things can be found right here,” he exclaims. “Some of the most beautiful gemstones in the world are from Maine. We tend to forget that a century ago, mining was a major enterprise hereabouts. There were both gold and silver mines, at least 200 of them, and at least 2,000 mineral mines.

It's been said that the streets of Blue Hill are paved in gold, since tailings from gold mines were used in paving, Tony points out. “Even today I know of a Maine guy making a modest living panning for gold.

“The world's largest deposit of manganese, a key ingredient in steel-making is in Northern Maine,” Tony notes. “I have no doubt that at some point Maine will again become an important mining state.”

It's impossible not to get caught up in Tony's enthusiasm. Picking up a rock, his eyes open wide. “Consider this fossil,” he says. “It was formed millions of years ago by unimaginably powerful earthly forces. It's as close to eternal as anything can be.”

Tony is devoted to making people increasingly aware. “Quite recently, in geological terms, Maine was covered by a glacier more than a mile thick,” he notes. “Right around here there are rocks the size of houses brought by the glacier from hundreds of miles away.

“Every year, millions of people drive by the Agassiz Historical Outcrop in Ellsworth Falls,” he points out. “It's right next to the highway, just this side of the Falls Take-out. It's here that Louis Agassiz of Harvard College shook up the fundamentalist religious community by concluding that scratches on the smooth rock surface were caused by glaciation, not the Biblical flood of Noah's time. Agassiz's conclusions are every bit as important as Darwin's.

A year or so ago, this outcrop, which is in the National Register of Historical Sites, almost got blasted apart when they were working on the highway. Tony gave one of the construction guys $100 for a chunk of it. It lies as the centerpiece in the shop's Maine Rock Garden, which features significant rocks of Maine. As for the Agassiz Historical Outcrokp, at the last minute a University of Maine geologist intervened to save it from total destruction.”

Although Tony focuses on Maine, he has fossils from all over the world. He says he has become friends with one of the world's foremost collectors, a fellow who happens to summer in Maine.

“Every year he drops off some interesting items,” Tony says. “Right now we have some wonderful rocks he brought from Brazil. We probably have the best fossil collection in Maine.”

Tony's sister Annette is a passionate artist. Focusing on art and education, she earned a B.A. degree at the University of Maine in Orono. When she isn't working at the shop, she is the art teacher at the Dedham and Airline elementary schools. She makes much of the jewelry in the shop, including unique bug wing jewelry. As this was written, she was fashioning her own wedding ring from Maine topaz.

Tony's other sister, Amanda, combines interests in art and nature with design and business. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine, she specialized in small business entrepreneurship. She minored in holistic medicine. Tony says she is the plant guru of the family. She is passionately interested in orchids, herbs, cacti, and carnivorous plants of all kinds.

Evolving from the combined efforts of the Sohns, The Rock and Art Shop doesn't feature art so much as it engulfs it. Rock and art meld together, indoors and out. Art takes the form of paintings, jewelry, and sculptures as well as naturally-occurring flora, fauna, and geological artifacts. Some art discloses the hand of a talented artist, some the hand of God, some a happy conjunction of the two.

Out behind the shop, a nature trail weaves casually through a wide variety of vegetation communities and habitat types. There are mature birch, maple, oak, spruce, pine and hemlock trees. Strands of fern blanket the forest floor; lady's slippers, brilliant patches of moss and lichens cover trees and rocks. Chipmunks and squirrels dart about. There are ever-changing exhibits of manmade art. At trail's end is a peaceful Zen garden.

The most recent addition to the shop is a cacti greenhouse with a wide variety of succulent plants. They meld nicely with a collection of rare plant specimens growing hereabouts, including a pine from China long thought extinct.

Visitors to the Rock and Art Shop, caught up in cool, are bound to be entertained, enlightened, and enthralled.