Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part 'Rock Shops of Distinction' feature.
Story and Photos by Jim Brace-Thompson
Riddle me this: When is a rock shop more than a rock shop? Answer: When it is run by two women with true community spirit, a zeal for education, and a taste for fun. Such are Cyndy Mandell and Lois Papner, co-owners of Mining Supplies & Rock Shop in Hesperia, California. In this first of two articles, I’ll provide a history of the shop; next month, I’ll explore its community-oriented educational mission.
I had known Cyndy and Lois tangentially for many years via activities within the California Federation of Mineralogical Societies. They once participated in a field trip I led into the Mojave Desert for chalcedony and colorfully banded travertine onyx. And we would see one another occasionally at shows sponsored by local rock clubs where Cyndy and Lois had a booth. Then a couple years ago, I heard they took their hobby passion to a new level. They had made the leap to establish a rock shop. I finally truly got to know them when meeting briefly at the big shows in Quartzsite, Arizona, in January 2018 and, at their kind invitation, via an in-depth interview at their shop a couple of months later.
“Mom-and-pop” rock shops are something of an endangered species. While many cities and quaint tourist towns may host a store on Main Street selling healing stones alongside jewelry and varied knickknacks, such stores are more in the vein of a gift shop. With identical merchandise apparently purchased from the same wholesalers in Tucson, they all tend to look alike. A true rock shop offering mineral and fossil specimens, rocks found locally, gear for field collecting, and rough rock, slabs and tools for lapidary work is hard to find.
Celebrating and Visiting Rock Shops
My wife has a family home in Maine, and most years we find ourselves flying across country from California, renting a car in Boston or Bangor, and trekking along the East Coast to the Bar Harbor region. In days of old, we would pass at least a half-dozen small roadside rock shops, many catering to the tourist market in the short summer months with Maine tourmaline and associated minerals including specimens collected by the proprietors themselves. Stories of their adventures were provided free with each purchase! But the last time we made the trip, we passed just two shops. We heard one couple had passed away. Another had called it a day and retired to North Carolina. And so it goes. With each passing year, it seems harder and harder to find a good old-fashioned rock shop of distinction.
Bucking this trend, the California desert town of Hesperia north of the Los Angeles megalopolis has boasted just such a shop that has operated more-or-less continuously for three decades. Even while changing hands seven times and changing locations four times, it persisted under the name of Mining Supplies & Treasures. Cyndy Mandell attributes such longevity to a couple of factors. First, Hesperia sits in a spot that might be described as a gateway from Los Angeles to a multitude of classic collecting localities in the Mojave Desert.
Second, the store has always had a strong anchor via a focus as a one-stop shop for all things gold-related. Throughout history, gold prospectors have been nothing if not fanatical about their pursuit, and folks were willing to seek out a shop providing all the necessary equipment for prospecting even when the shop was located off the beaten path, as this one sometimes was. For instance, until recently, it was in an industrial zone with little visibility and zero casual foot traffic. Business relied on a long reputation, return customers and gold prospectors with sufficient interest and spunk to track them down.
A Transfer of Ownership
Cyndy was one of those return customers and wanted to sell a used gold dry washer on consignment, so she took it to Mining Supplies & Treasures. It sold. When she went to get the money, owners Mitch and Deborah Whaley held back on handing over the cash. Looking her in the eye, Mitch asked, “Do you want to buy the store with this?” She laughed and uttered a slightly stronger version of “Heck, no!” She was retired and had no intention of re-entering the rat race of the workaday world. But Mitch kept asking whenever he saw her or Lois, and they began thinking, “We have 11 trailer loads of rocks in the back yard. Maybe we can get rid of some of this stuff without travelling around the show circuit.”
Fellow Victor Valley Gem & Mineral Club members Carole Michael and Nancy Flanders got wind of their discussions. They added their encouragement and offered expertise with the book work involved in running a business and said they could assist in identifying their thousands of rocks. The shop would only be open, what, maybe six hours a day, four days a week? Cyndy and Lois were nothing if not fully dedicated rockhounds. Lois has been collecting her whole life and inherited her dad’s collection and joined a rock club some 25 years ago. Cyndy came into the hobby a bit later in life. She joined a club to learn silver work, got hooked, and took every course she could. Finally, Cyndy and Lois looked at one another and uttered those famous last words, “Who knows? It could be fun!”
When they took the leap, Mitch and Deborah assisted during the transition before handing over the keys, and Cyndy and Lois became the most recent proprietors, effective New Year’s Day 2016. Within a month, they held their grand opening. Less than two short years later, the fun faded considerably as they faced an unexpected and immediate 78% spike in rent, forcing them to change location. This proved both a bane and a blessing.
Lessons in Business
On the negative side of the ledger, after just two years in the business with big initial investments and income still quite tight, they faced a whole new set of investments in moving expenses and all that came with it: transporting supplies and heavy inventory (rocks ain’t light!), obtaining new shelving and display units, paying to change all the locks, installing a security system and cameras, rewiring for electrical drops, and encountering some unpleasant surprises. For instance, the new location is in a fairly active shopping center that mandates a big, lighted storefront sign, which itself cost more than $5,000. All this before even a penny of income had been realized from the move!
As Cyndy notes, to date it’s been more a labor of love than a profit-making venture. But, on the positive side of the ledger, love flowed in abundance as friends and family pitched in. Carole and Nancy continued to help. Lois’ sister Carole Papner helped for hours moving rocks and setting up shelving. Friends Kat Adriano and James Bradshaw did much physical work, including painting, stripping the floor, fixing equipment, and more. Marina Shoupe helped organize the store and gave tips on merchandizing. Ana Esquivel and Barb Schultheis organized thousands of rocks for eBay sales, and Justin and Brandy Zzyzx lent a hand in nearly every aspect of the business. Justin and Brandy had run a natural science themed art gallery in Los Angeles and Justin had apprenticed under the legendary Rock Currier at Jewel Tunnel Imports, so he proved invaluable on how to evaluate, price, run, and showcase rocks and minerals.
Brandy also created an excellent website for the store that allows for online shopping and sales.
New Locale, New Opportunities
The new location offered immediate benefits. Their floor space is now twice as large, providing more options and flexibility in what they can offer and in more effectively displaying it. And display it well they have! The shop is beautifully organized and meticulously neat and tidy with good signage. More importantly, they are now part of a commercially zoned shopping center, where they already are enjoying much more visibility and increased casual foot traffic. I visited on a Monday, when their shop is closed, and even then about a half-dozen customers slipped in whenever the door was left ajar and several lookie-loos tried the door when it was locked.
In line with enhancing visibility, the Hesperia Chamber of Commerce, of which Cyndy and Lois are members, assisted in holding a grand re-opening on Feb. 16, 2018. Cyndy and Lois are lifetime members of the Victor Valley Gem & Mineral Club. They served on the board for many years in many positions; in fact, Cyndy was president for two years. In short, from countless interactions they really know rockhounds! Gem and mineral clubs are composed of folks with varied interests, from those who simply like to collect to those who like to do things with rocks in a lapidary or jewelry workshop. Cyndy and Lois wanted to cater to that full spectrum. To reflect an expanded focus while retaining the established emphasis on gear for gold prospecting, they had changed the name of the shop slightly from Mining Supplies & Treasures to Mining Supplies & Rock Shop.
Eyeing Greater Inventory
With dramatically enlarged floor space, Cyndy and Lois saw immediate potential to add greatly to the inventory—and to begin tackling that big rock pile in their backyard! Having taken numerous field trips over the years and having purchased truckloads of rough rocks from estate sales, they had amassed a huge and varied pile. They cleared out four estates in their first year and obtained four trailer loads from a classic rock shop that stood on historic Route 66 near the Bagdad Café and closed in 1975. Entering it was like entering a time capsule!
They continue adding to their inventory via estate sales and trips to such venues as the Quartzsite and Tucson shows for specialty items. Every year at Tucson, there seems to be a “featured” rock that wholesalers bring in vast quantity and that you can obtain for pennies on the dollar. This year, it was prehnite, which they brought back by the flat. They also attend the shows to fulfill special requests—as for an individual who wanted a flat of Himalaya salt rocks or the customer hankering for a big crystal ball. Now striving to be a full-service rock shop, Cyndy and Lois offer something for every rockhound, new and old. As I perused their shelves, I spotted bins of tumble-polished stones neatly sorted by color and type as well as mineral, crystal, and fossil specimens from around the world. In this age when the cost to enter the collecting arena veers on the astronomical, I greatly appreciated a readily apparent emphasis on affordability.
Affordable and Available Slabs and Stones
While there were some pieces at premium prices, many were in the range of $1 to $60. They have treasures from around the world and some mined locally by Cyndy and Lois themselves from two decades of rambling the Mojave. When I go to a rock show, I gravitate toward those dealers who, themselves, are collectors and diggers because of their intimate knowledge of their materials and stories they can share. They also offer crafted stones, such as carvings, crystal spheres and malachite polished to a high finish. In addition to expensive amethyst vugs from Brazil, they have geodes priced as low as $5 along with both a saw and a cracker (a modified tire jack) to allow folks to pick out a geode and have it sliced or cracked on the spot. Although not devotees of the metaphysical, they acknowledge the appeal and demand for healing stone and have shelves filled with stones of varied sorts along with tags offering metaphysical descriptions. One thing they do not carry are dyed stones like the bright purple, blue, green, or red Brazilian agate slabs that seem to permeate the market.
Lapidary artists can find a huge assortment of rough lapidary rocks and slabs. Some are neatly arranged in boxes on shelves with meticulous notes on where each came from—or you can paw through a tabletop bin filled to overflowing with miscellaneous slabs, unidentified but pretty. Those favoring a faceting machine over a Genie will find raw gemstones. Those who prefer to buy finished stones for hand-crafted or premade settings will find jewelry-making supplies and findings, as well as silver wire and sheet for doing your own silver work and an abundance of basic materials for beading, along with cut and polished cabochons and other prepared stones ready to set or to wire-wrap.
Locally Crafted Jewelry
I was really impressed by the jewelry they offered for sale and was even more impressed when I learned that much of it was crafted locally, including by Cyndy and Lois themselves and by their associates Ana Esquivel and Barb Schultheis. One entire glass display cabinet held quality pieces crafted by local artists, professional and amateur, that they sell on consignment at a 30% commission. Whether you are just starting out in lapidary arts or have been at it a good long while, you can always use tips and advice, so Cyndy and Lois stock a range of how-to books. They also include a supply of videos, and while visiting them, I had the pleasure to meet and chat with the producer of the MarZee Tutorials series, Marina Shoupe. Marina records seasoned “old-timer” lapidary artists to preserve and pass along their knowledge and skill sets, and she has joined in to help Cyndy and Lois make a go of their shop. In addition to the video series, she has given them help putting their store in order, provided valued advice on merchandizing, and offers classes on jade carving. Her MarZee tutorials cover cabbing, flat lapping, faceting, lapidary drilling, and jade carving.
One exception to their inventory and plans seems to be basic lapidary equipment. They do stock a few new and used machines including flat laps and tumblers, but that is clearly not an emphasis for them. Besides, it would likely be pointless to even try competing in this arena what with the headquarters and showroom of Diamond Pacific more or less “up the street” in nearby Barstow.
Primer Panning and Prospecting
While expanding their focus, gold panning and prospecting remains their core business. It was what had built the reputation of the store and had sustained it as a going concern over 30 years, so it still takes up a sizeable footprint within the shop and provides them “rent money”. Their website advertises “durable mining tools that won’t break your back at prices that won’t break your budget”. These include both new tools fresh in the packaging and used sluice boxes that have already mined a fair share of color. This clearly remains a one-stop shop for all things prospecting related: basic pans and trowels, rock picks, metal detectors, dry washers, sluice boxes, hand suction snipers, and more. They maintain active affiliations with three local prospecting clubs: the Au Mojave Prospectors, High Desert Gold Diggers, and Valley Prospectors. Outside of the northern California gold country, it can be difficult to find one spot with all the equipment you could want for gold panning and prospecting—but in southern California, this is the spot! Cyndy notes how prospectors are a social group: “A single sale can trigger a fascinating two-hour chat with a customer sharing his or her experiences and telling you about Grandpa’s Mojave prospecting adventures during the Great Depression."
It was while examining their case of locally crafted jewelry and listening to the pride and admiration Lois and Cyndy voiced for the artists that I fully appreciated a distinct aspect of their shop and their mission, namely, supporting their local community. I’ve already noted the community of friends who have gathered to support the endeavor. Many of them—Ana, Barb, Justin, Carole, and Marina—were in the shop helping on the day of my visit and exuding a warm community spirit. This close-knit team is reaching out to make the shop more than a shop. There is a clear, shared vision of making Mining Supplies & Rock Shop a center for the local rockhounding community. One example is a tailgate they started their first year in business.
With all the time they must devote to the shop, including Saturday business hours, they have been forced almost entirely to cut out having a booth at local shows, although they still hit the show circuit on occasion to enhance their visibility. Then an idea struck them: why not host a show of their own? Their original location in an industrial zone sported a large parking lot that was often unpopulated. There, they hosted two tailgates right in front of the store.
The most recent, billed as the “Rock, Gem, Gold, and Jade Show”, took place in November 2017, with 21 vendors participating as volunteers waved signs on street corners to bring in traffic. With their new location in a busy shopping center, it remains to be seen if they can continue this as an annual tradition, but Lois spoke of a former K-Mart at the edge of the center that sits vacant, and I could see the wheels turning in her head. “Who knows?” she seemed to be thinking. “It could be fun!”
Mining Supplies & Rock Shop is located in the Orchard Shopping Center, 16808 Main Street, Hesperia, California. Hours of operation are Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For contact information and more about this rock shop of distinction, go to www.miningsuppliesandrockshop.com. While it has proven a tough haul attempting to take flight these first two years of operation, they show the passion to make a go of it. There’s a real community spirit about the place, exuding from all who were helping in the store the day I visited, to their support for local artists and hosting a local tailgate. This community spirit, along with a focus on education, is what really separates Mining Supplies & Rock Shop from the run-of-the-mill store and is what I’ll explore in a follow-on article.