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Stories of Rockhounds and Warm Wine


It’s hard to track down exactly how long ago I started going to the Tucson Gem and Mineral show, since it predates the internet as we know it. However, I believe my first trip was in the mid-90s and that I’ve made the journey upwards of 20 times at this point. I can think of no other way to uncover the breadth of specimens and reasonable pricing that I find in Tucson. So, it is without fail, that we continue going back year after year. This year I traveled with our store manager, Rosy, and buyer Trace, which was their first time attending the show. And, by chance of poor luck, we made the trek during the peak of the Omicron wave, to a state that’s not known for its high vaccine numbers and—shall I say—affinity for masks. In the end, we found that most people masked indoors, and we felt reasonably safe.


The “Show” is really dozens of different shows or venues including hundreds, if not thousands—I really have no reasonable way of figuring it out—of vendors. It’s truly one of the oddest tradeshows I’ve ever been to. Some exhibits take place in huge tents like one might expect, while others are set up in parking lots. Yet, most of them that we visit, are in hotel rooms. Yes, hotel rooms. 


Tucson, like many desert communities I've visited, attracts both artists and weirdos in equal measure. But, once every year, the desert city of Tucson, Arizona is taken over by a new brand of weirdos: Rockhounds in the form of shoppers and sellers from all over the world. This mass influx has prompted locals to christen the event the “Germ and Mineral show,” even prior to the pandemic. Admittedly, the idea of traveling at the peak of Omicron, to Arizona, and attending a show with such a nickname, wasn’t one we were very excited about. We didn’t make the decision lightly and honestly—if I had another option—I would have taken it. We had skipped the 2021 show because of Covid and didn’t go to smaller shows throughout the year. With our stock desperately low, we really had no choice. So, please bear in mind, when you enter the store over the coming months and see the new collections and offerings: At least at the time of this writing Rosy, Trace and I dodged a bullet for you! *


The show is weird and wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which are the varying venues. Most puzzling for a first-time attendee are the hotel room exhibits, in particular those that are clearly stores by day and hotel rooms by night. It’s not uncommon to enter a room that is still fully outfitted as a bedroom but spread across a cactus emblazoned duvet are trays of fossils or minerals. There may be a lunch on the counter in the back, or clothing hanging about, and the television is often on. In fact, during many visits, the show’s dates have corresponded with the Superbowl. So, during one of those days of shopping we may find vendors yelling at the television or cheering on their team. This year the Superbowl took place after our visit, but this didn’t stop one regular vendor from saying, “You’re from Frisco, right? Go Niners!! I’ll bet you 50 bucks the Rams beat them in the playoffs!” You really feel like you’re entering someone’s personal space in these hotel room “shops.”

More ambitious vendors will flip their bed on its side during the day and clear a space for a few folding tables, leaving the television off. But it’s still there mounted on the wall, with its darkened screen bidding to be turned on. Those who have a bit more to spend will rent a room elsewhere and fully utilize the hotel room as a miniature store, sans bed, dresser, and television. Finally, given that the show lasts three to four weeks, depending on the vendor, it’s also quite common to find people eating, hanging out with friends who’ve dropped by, or otherwise, losing interest in attending to their customers. I’ve even seen people barbequing outside their rooms. They live there and most have settled in. In these little rooms, I feel like we’re stepping into a mini-strip mall, set up in a series of side-by-side bedrooms, one after the other: In one door, “Hello, Thanks” … out, and into the next, “Hello. Thanks…” And so on.

Larger shows are often in giant tents or ballrooms of the more substantial hotels and sometimes include amazing specimens—fully articulated mosasaur skeletons; massive crystal formations nearly as tall as I am. This year one exhibit included a giant North American land sloth specimen, towering 10 feet or more overhead. These exhibits feel more like trade shows with aisle after aisle of booths, professional lighting, and salespeople greeting you, hoping to tempt you into slowing your pace to peruse their wares. “Hi, top quality Baltic amber; do you want to take a look?” It’s easy to get swept up in the chaos and the extravagance, and if we had the time, we could easily spend weeks at the show. Instead, we spend just under a week shopping in Tucson. With eight to ten favorite venues, hundreds of booths entered or otherwise perused, and ultimately purchasing from 50 or more sellers any given year, we barely have time to eat lunch much less casually enjoy the affair. Somehow, it’s both a marathon and a sprint, but it's certainly not a walk in the park.


In addition to the atypical layout and grand scale, the oddities are the vendors themselves. At any given show, I may meet sellers from a dozen different countries: Morocco, Madagascar, England, China, Russia to name just a few. Some of these vendors are brokers who buy fossils and minerals in their home countries, or from other sellers, and make the trek to Tucson every year. While others are literally the prospectors themselves: sourcing, excavating, and preparing the specimens by hand. 


When we have the time, the stories from these DIYers are the makings of a truly special trip … if not a novel. And, at times, they tie stories to the pieces that we bring back that we can share with you, our customers. There have been occasions when the seller is literally wearing dirt covered overalls and I’ve thought to myself, “Did you just dig this up?” Or I’ll enter a booth and behind the counter the vendor is prepping a fossil to make ready for sale. The true sign of a busy entrepreneur: Always working; always trying to get more done. With each booth comes a new rockhound or fossil/mineral geek (meant as a term of endearment, of course). Navigating these conversations when one is in a hurry to buy or move on, is difficult and frustrating because some of these stories are worth the wait. The tales those folks often tell provide a break from the monotony of visiting booth after booth, as well as some tidbit or story about an item we might bring back to Paxton Gate.


There’s Gary from whom we buy Elrathia kingii trilobites most every year. He’s an odd fellow and boasts the driest delivery I’ve ever heard from anyone, in or out of the show. Every year, without fail, I ask for this or that size or quantity and he laments the task of “digging up these little fellas.” “Well, you know Sean, I dig up what I can. I’m down there at the mine every year working until the weather sends me home. Then I gotta’ prep them all, make them clean and presentable … and, well, this is all I have.”


I used to buy pyritized ammonites from a Russian man named Sergey. He spoke little English, and I speak no Russian, but we’d work it out by pointing at the beautiful specimens and scratching numbers on a piece of paper. I’d always have to plan my visit to his booth toward the end of my day as he’d insist, and I’d have a drink with him. Surprisingly, it was never vodka as the stereotype might suggest. Instead, it was usually warm, white wine. I don’t know why I’d always partake; it just felt like saying no wasn’t an option with Sergey, here in his booth all day and now, offering me a drink. Or Trevor from England, from whom we buy lab made bismuth every year. A ceaseless self-promoter and gossiper, it was Trevor who told me the story of why Sergey was no longer at the show. According to him, it was an annual tradition that Sergey would get sloppy drunk at the airport while waiting for his flight to the U.S. and, that particular year—about 10 years ago—he took it too far. He was told he could never come back. Seems a bit harsh and like maybe there’s more to the story, but we haven’t seen him since. 


There’s also Soufiane, from Morocco. We buy selenite, ammonites, aragonite, and many other Moroccan fossils and minerals from him. He’s one of the hardest working people I know at the show. Somehow Soufiane can assist several different buyers at one time. I’ll peruse his booth looking for items and will ask for a case of this or a flat of that, a price here or there. Meanwhile he’s writing it all down, snapping orders at his helpers, and doing so for other buyers, while simultaneously trying to upsell everyone—often quite successfully. This year, one of the nicest people I work with at the show, Jamie, celebrated his birthday. He sells top quality Trilobites, meteorites, and Otodus obliquus shark teeth among other Moroccan imports. His birthday always falls within the show dates, but this was the first time I can recall that, by noon of the day before his birthday, he had already dipped into a full keg of beer behind his counter. Two days later, a new keg had been delivered. 


Finally, the interactions with other shoppers are often of note, and on occasion we’ll come across someone aggressively shopping a vendor. Not unlike the holiday, toy buying, horror stories you may have heard, I’ve approached a table, picked up a fossil or mineral, only to be barked at by another shopper, “I’m buying all of this. Put that down.” Probably not the best choice to speak that way to someone who’s holding a rock and only had a Cliff Bar for lunch!

Things have changed for Paxton Gate over the 25 or so years that we’ve been attending. I used to go at the end of the show to get the best deals, albeit the poorest selection. I also used to walk everywhere not being able to justify renting a car to buy a few hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise. Or I’d take the occasional shuttles offered by the show, ending my week by carrying boxes back to the cheapest hotel room I could find, usually far from the town center. I still have a vivid memory of walking a half mile or so on a gravel “sidewalk” to the Ecolodge or some other cheap hotel, step after step: crunch, crunch, crunch… A box of rocks that seemed easy enough to carry gets surprisingly heavy after a few hundred yards. Then, I’d sit there in my room packing up specimens, often by wrapping them individually in toilet paper, ultimately shipping a few boxes back to San Francisco. These days, as the store and our selection of fossils and minerals has grown, we ship full pallets of merchandise! Between Paxton Gate SF and our partners in Portland, we’ll send at least four pallets, carrying literally thousands of pounds of rocks to the west coast.


Despite the specter of Omicron and the anxiety I felt in the airport and on the plane, I must confess to being happy to be back in Tucson. Oddly, I missed the frenzied shopping and of course the friendships I’ve developed over the years. It’s exciting to find new products to bring back and share with our customers. Just wait until you see the fluorite specimens we bought this year! Every year I bring something small for my daughter, Fiona, that she adds to her growing collection. The trip also offers time with members of my staff whom, especially during these work-from-home years, I feel less connected to. And, once every 10 years or so, we end early enough for a quick drive out to the desert.


Someday this pandemic will level out to some sort of normalcy, but I imagine every year around this time, you can look to Paxton Gate for a huge new selection of fossils and minerals and perhaps a few more stories about our adventures in finding them for you. 

—Sean Quigley, Founder

*I finalized this newsletter on the plane returning from Tucson, but two days later I tested positive for Covid. As of publishing, it’s been like a mild cold and Rosy and Trace have tested negative. 


Founder’s Favorite

I found this piece at our annual Tucson show a couple years ago and was so clearly smitten by it that the vendor asked if this was a personal purchase, “Are you buying this one for yourself?” Evidently my expression conveyed how much I liked the sizable specimen. Quite often over the years, that is exactly how I’ve made decisions on buying, whether it’s fossils, plants or framed insects. I buy as if I’m making the purchase for myself; it just so happens that those purchases end up in the selection at Paxton Gate, rather than my home.


Collections of numerous specimens in one fossil, like this, are often referred to as “mortality plates” as they’re quite often displayed on flat segments of stone. Usually, these are the result of some mass mortality event such as a mudslide, or more complex incidents like an algae bloom in a prehistoric lake that kills the fish by depleting the oxygen. This specimen which includes ammonites, Nautilus, clams and numerous other bivalves might more accurately be called a “mortality boulder.”


This piece is from Madagascar and dates to between 100 to 133 million years ago. It falls into the category I call “mantel piece," meaning it’s striking enough to occupy an important location in one’s home décor. That said, you’d need a sizeable mantel on which to display it, since it measures roughly 11” x 19” x 7.” I think I’m so fond of it because it’s naturally arranged as if purposely laid out, with the “showstopper” ammonite at the top and other pieces mingled in, which seems almost intentional. Often with one-of-a-kind pieces like this—that I covet—I tell myself that if it doesn’t sell by a certain date, maybe I’ll take it home. Usually the universe aligns and somehow, just thinking this means the piece is out the door before the deadline. 

Locale: Ambarimaninga, Madagascar. Southwest of Mahajunga.

Period: Albian, 113 to 100.5 myo

Genus: Douvilleiceras & Nautiluses. 

Includes numerous small bivalves.

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