New Bangor ‘curiosity store’ specializes in unique and unusual artifacts

Kristina King (right) browses in The Rock & Art Shop on Central Street in Bangor as owner Tony Sohns (left) looks over the newly opened store on Wednesday, June 29, 2011. Sohns owns the shop with his parents, Jim and Arlene Sohns, and also his two sisters, Annette and Amanda Sohns. The shop, located in downtown Bangor, features natural history objects along with the work of local artists.
Kate Collins | BDN
Kristina King (right) browses in The Rock & Art Shop on Central Street in Bangor as owner Tony Sohns (left) looks over the newly opened store on Wednesday, June 29, 2011. Sohns owns the shop with his parents, Jim and Arlene Sohns, and also his two sisters, Annette and Amanda Sohns. The shop, located in downtown Bangor, features natural history objects along with the work of local artists.
By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff
Posted June 30, 2011, at 10:55 a.m.

The idea to open another Rock & Art Shop, in Bangor, came up around the Sohns dinner table. In February, they were committed to the idea. They had the month of June to renovate what used to be downtown’s Lippincott Books into their “curiosity store” of rare minerals, Maine-made jewelry, breathtaking fine art and items for exploring natural history for both young and old.

The store opened Friday, June 24, just in time to participate in last week’s Downtown Bangor Artwalk.

The original Rock & Art Shop, a bright yellow building off Route 1A in Ellsworth, will have to share its owners: Jim and Arlene Sohns and their children Amanda Sohns, 25, Tony Sohns, 33, and Annette Dodd, 29, and her husband Chris Dodd.

“How much is the ostrich?” asked a man as he looked up at the beak of a real, preserved ostrich standing at the center of the Bangor store on Tuesday evening.

Its plumage stirred in a breeze from the overhead fans, and Annette laughed.

“The ostrich is not for sale, but you can buy an egg,” she said, motioning toward the basket full of hollowed ostrich eggs at the bird’s feet.

The store’s feathered centerpiece is originally from Perry’s Nuthouse in Belfast and was auctioned off in 1996. For five years, Tony pestered Rose Garden Cafe & Design in Eastport to sell him the bird. Three weeks before Bangor Rock & Art Shop opened they agreed to sell, and Tony picked it up in his truck.

“We grew up going to places like Perry’s Nuthouse, Aquarius Antiques [in Bar Harbor] and Vance’s Tropical Fish [in Bucksport] — places you go and feel like you’re not just buying something, but you’re also learning something,” said Tony.

“It’s my children’s dream,” said Jim, who recently retired from nearly 40 years working for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “My wife and I are there to help them out as much as possible.”

Each family member brings something different to the shop.

Amanda studies business at the University of Southern Maine. Annette is an artist and art teacher. And Tony is a natural science educator, better known as the “Bug Guy,” who has traveled to libraries, schools and museums in every county to teach about rocks, plants and animals.

“The rocks that Mother Nature makes are amazing. We have rocks from all seven continents [at our shops],” said Tony as he picked up a brilliant indigo mineral from a shelf.

The hunk of rare salt appears indigo because its molecules have aligned in just the right way to absorb all other colors of light. When placed in water, it appears clear. Tony tells children to lick the crystal when guessing its name.

“You could take this, grind it up and put it on your French fries,” said Tony.

The store is just as much about art as it is about rocks and natural history. The Sohns Gallery in the back-left section of the store will exhibit work by up-and-coming artists.  An evolving mural by Kat Johnson, “The Seat of Ebb and Flow,” is currently on display and in its second stage of five. Johnson will give an art talk at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 21, at the shop.

In their two shops combined, they estimate 50 Maine artists represented.

“You have jewelry where the stones are mined in Maine and sent to local stonecutters and a local silversmith works on them,” Tony said. “This jewelry has never left the state.”

For the Bangor shop, their challenge was to mix minerals and gifts of all price points with fine art, such as the luminous mosaic fish “Casca” that Ada Athorp formed out of colorful wine foils she collected and assembled over a year — a piece priced $6,500.

“We have to deem it cool,” said Annette about their merchandise selection as she admired a fossilized rock mirror from Africa.

Most of the time, their art and jewelry reflect their love of nature. For example, fossilized dinosaur feces, streaked with brilliant reds and oranges, has made its way into a necklace. And Annette, whose fine-art mineral and silver jewelry is displayed throughout the store, used some of Tony’s broken butterfly specimens to make butterfly wing earrings.

“We all love Bangor, but five years ago, Bangor just didn’t seem like a viable place [for the shop],” said Tony, adding that they chose to open the first shop in Ellsworth because of the traffic generated by Mount Desert Island.

Though the shop has been visited by many Bangor residents, in the first three days they were open, they also had customers from places such as Maryland, Florida, England, Finland and South Africa.

“It’s amazing the amount of tourists coming to downtown Bangor,” Tony said.

Through the storefront windows, sidewalk strollers can see South American air plants hanging in dangling glass balls — under those, carnivorous plants, and under the table, shade-loving succulents.

“We don’t just sell air plants and Venus flytraps, we actually know how to take care of everything,” said Annette. “The roots of air plants are only there to hold onto the bark of a tree. They get their water and food through their leaves and you only need to get them wet once a week.”

“They’re from the pineapple family,” said Tony as he walked by the display on his way to talk to a family from Massachusetts that had just entered the store.

The family recently had visited the Ellsworth Rock & Art shop, and Tony had sent them to one of the 2,000 rock mines in Maine to find their own rocks.

Siblings Andrew, 10, Patrick, 8, and Olivia Lamas, 5, and their cousin Gavin McDonald, 10, gathered around Tony to show him what they’d found. Copper and calcite were among the many minerals in their bag.

After, they wandered from the children’s corner of sea monkeys and petrified beetles to run their hands through baskets of smooth minerals and ask Tony about the bright red coral on display.

“I really like this shop because it’s easier to go to than the one in Ellsworth and there’s more variety,” said Gavin of Veazie, who introduced his Massachusetts relatives to the Ellsworth shop.

“We’ve never run into a shop like this,” said his aunt, Juliane Lamas. “I think they’ve become so much more interested in history and horticulture because of the shop.”

“I think my favorite are the water buffalo teeth,” said her son Patrick, though he eventually purchased shark teeth and pieces of red coral for a total of $3, his limit for the shopping trip.

Patrick is starting out just like Tony did.

“I’ve been collecting since I was in first grade,” said Tony. “And as I built up a collection of weird things, you meet the people who own the weird things.”

Because they’ve been open only a week, they’re still in the process of moving some of the bigger “weird” items into the store. The jaw of a Mosasaur, a 35-foot prehistoric relative of the Komodo dragon, is waiting in Annette’s living room. And a cast of a Tyrannosaurus Rex is still in the shop basement.

The Bangor Rock & Art Shop is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. every day. For information, call 947-2205.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/06/30/living/new-bangor-curiosity-store-specializes-in-unique-and-unusual-artifacts/ printed on December 20, 2014