Evanston rock store touts massive collection

Chris Kirk

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Dave’s Down to Earth Rock Shop is a hoard of such gems. It also totes minerals, fossils and artifacts that are rare where they’re found and rarer around Chicago.

“See the Alexandrite that’s right in here?” accountant Susanne Ali said, shuffling past a wall covered in beaded necklaces and producing two tiny white gems costing several hundred dollars – one of the store’s most expensive items and the rarest gem on the planet. “Those are really fantastic.”

Most of the items can’t be found for hundreds of miles – some can’t be found in this part of the world. That’s because Dave Douglass, 59, the owner, spends a lot of time away from his own shop, 704 Main St., trading and collecting in far away places. He handpicks everything in the shop.

It is a hunt that consumes a lot of Douglass’s time, and his passion is one that has taken him to South Dakota, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Utah, New Mexico, Europe and North Africa.

“Fossil collecting has been my hobby since I was a kid, since I was 8 years old,” he said, recalling the first time his family took him fossil-hunting.

As a teenager, a genus of scorpion that was later named after Douglass only spurred his passion.

“It was really exciting,” he said. “Having your name go down in science, you know?”

Douglass attended Northwestern and took a year of geology courses. As a sophomore in 1970, he started the rock shop and continued his education part-time.

He eventually discontinued it altogether because Douglass said he found classroom geology uninteresting. He wanted to be in the dirt, picking through rocks himself.

“You crack open a rock, and you’re the first person in the world to see what’s inside,” he said.

Douglass started the shop in 1970 at a smaller location on Chicago Avenue. He met his wife two years later, and in 1981 they moved the shop to its present location on Main Street.

The shop may be brimming with gems and stones, but the most precious items are beneath it, where Douglass’s public museum touts fossils – many of which he unearthed himself – representing all major periods of Earth’s history.

Among the collection: dinosaur footprints, bones, 30-million-year-old insects encased in amber, mammoth and saber-tooth tiger material and a complete 20,000-year-old bear skeleton.

“About half of it we dug up ourselves,” Douglass said. “The other half we’ve traded for or purchased over the years.”

The museum, which is free, attracts a range of customers.

“I love the place,” said Zahida Bahrainwala, a Hoffman Estates teacher who brought her class to the shop.

At the Field Museum, she said, “everything is behind glass cases,” but the rock shop provides a hands-on experience for her students.

“I like the vast collection of rocks,” said 8th-grader Evan Wjciechowski, eying a giant, fossilized femur bone in the museum.

Others come not simply to look, but to buy.

“They have the greatest range of gemstones and rocks I’ve seen at a reasonable price,” said Trevor Reisz, 63, of Mt. Prospect. He came in years ago to buy a meteorite for his daughter. When he returned, he walked out with a white star sapphire he plans to make into a ring.

Customers range from occasional enthusiasts like Reisz to crusty rock collectors to spiritualists.

“It’s an eclectic group of people,” employee Sean Robinson said. “A rock shop isn’t that common a thing, especially in the Midwest.”

cperryk@u.northwestern.edu

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