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The Collector

Stone Goddess Rock Shop is the natural history museum of the South Side.

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The Stone Goddess Rock Shop stands miles south of the city, on a stretch of Jefferson Davis Highway that is lined with old motels and mechanics' garages. The small store is crammed with natural wonders of all kinds: minerals, crystals, fossils — even a meteorite 2 billion years older than Earth.

In the window lies an 18-inch-long fossilized jawbone of a mosasaur — an aquatic, thick-necked dinosaur with wicked teeth. A clutch of 15 fossilized Segnosaurus eggs rests in a glass case. Sieburth brought them to the CJW Medical Center-Johnston Willis Campus two years ago for a CAT scan ("At first they thought we were kidding," she says). The scan revealed rare embryonic bones within, making Sieburth's the world's largest such nest of dinosaur eggs outside a museum.

Nelly, a 9-foot, blue-and-yellow dinosaur statue, guards the rock yard in back, which is filled with geodes, polished marbles and large clusters of spiky Chinese quartz. Children can pay a dollar to hunt through a pile of small rocks, while serious collectors may buy specimens for more than $1,000. A box of small sharks' teeth goes for $3. A 20-pound emerald costs $725.

A blue Astro van parked outside is packed with boxes of finds from the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in February. Customers always clamor for new stones, Sieburth says, although "there's so much in here right now, I can move something once and they think it's new."

Ever since she was a child in Maine, Sieburth says, rocks and fossils and crystals have fascinated her, since she "grew up around those big granite glacial boulders and things. And they were my friends as a kid. … They were alive to me." She'd collect trilobites, petrified wood and other specimens she found on hikes or in tiny rock shops along highways. "It was my big dream to play with this stuff."

The dream came true three years ago. Sieburth had been selling rocks and fossils at local flea markets with her "mentor, consultant and significant other," Daniel Cason, but she wanted to turn that sideline into a permanent business. So Sieburth sold some of her possessions, stashed away some savings and in November 1999 found a promising spot in the small pine-paneled store.

She scraped up the first month's rent, put up a hand-painted sign and set out her stones on cloth-covered folding tables, with no way to foretell if the store would succeed. It was a challenge at first. "Believe me, I had almost no money," Sieburth says. She didn't advertise, but customers heard about the place by word of mouth. "And people just came in and they really liked it," she concludes. Now, she's thinking about adding another store in Richmond, where most of her customers live.

In the span of an hour and a half one Wednesday morning, the shop is never empty of customers. Sieburth and Cason, who has spent 30 of his 50 years studying and selling rocks, answer questions from those who are searching for a particular stone, whether to harmonize with their chakras or to match a pair of earrings.

"Some people buy them as a scientific study — the people that are really into what kind of ite this is, how it was formed or … where different things came from," she says. "Some people want them just 'cause they're pretty and they enhance the decoration in their homes. And then we get our metaphysical people, too. We have all of them."

One frequent visitor is a steel salesman who always arrives in a button-down shirt and tie. "It's so fun," Cason says, "because he'll come in here and one of our Grateful Dead/Phish followers will come in. And both of them will be holding the same specimen, admiring it. What other world would you see that in?"

Kristen Cios is a Virginia Commonwealth University student who says she "got into minerals and rocks" a year ago. "Every single one of my friends comes here," she says. Cios wears a necklace with a tiger's-eye pendant set in spirals of silver wire, crafted by her friend Keeley Yates. The two ooh and aah over a few small crystals of purple and green vesuvianite Cason unwraps for them to see.

Cason, whose muscles are weakened from Lou Gehrig's disease, can no longer lift the heavier stones. But he's a rich mine of rock lore, Cios says. "He doesn't make you feel stupid when you ask questions."

He loves questions, in fact, especially from children. "If you learn what pyrite is," Cason says, "or you learn what unakite, the state stone of Virginia, is, if you're a 5-year-old that'll still be data you can use when you're 90."

The shape and orientation of crystals determine their quality and value, Cason says. "But for most customers here, it's gotta be color." Amber and amethyst are big sellers, especially the amethyst "churches" — naturally formed alcoves that sparkle inside with violet facets.

Cason and Sieburth go strictly by field guides when selling stones, they say, unlike others who rename minerals to cater to the New Age market. It's cheating to call African Butterstone "Infin-ite" and claim it has mystic properties, they say. Rocks are cool enough as is.

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