Russ and Pamela Shoemaker retired almost 20 years ago, but it didn’t last. The couple sold the old Murphys General Store building that housed their beloved rock shop and took off on the road, traveling the entire perimeter of the United States and collecting specimens along the way.
Despite the allure of adventure and the ever-changing scenery, the Shoemakers couldn’t let go of the dream they had built together over 30 years of marriage. Pamela missed interacting with the worldwide clientele that came into the shop, and Russ yearned to peruse and expand his vast collection of geological oddities.
So after less than a year on hiatus, they purchased a storefront on Angels Camp’s historic South Main Street, and Stories in Stones opened its doors once again.
“I’ve always called this my retirement -- it’s never been work to me,” Russ says, gesturing at the stacks of polished stones, fossils and South American minerals that he sifts through each day in the warehouse. “I love what I’m doing and am able to help others develop a similar interest in our origin of the Earth. When you do something you love, you last longer in life. You don’t eat yourself up inside with worries and troubles.”
The couple doesn’t have children of their own, but they’ve inspired many who have come through their shop to pursue careers in Earth science.
“I enjoy this place because all of the varieties of gems and rocks look amazing on display,” says 12-year-old Lennox Mills of Turlock, who was first introduced to Stories in Stones during a home-school field trip. He returns often with his siblings to tap into Russ’ wealth of knowledge and bring home a new rock for his collection.
Russ’ passion was instilled by his father, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Michigan. Now coming up on his 90th birthday, he remembers hunting for specimens as soon as he could walk and proudly displays a photo of his 1-year-old self toting a pail.
“Dad planted the seeds in my mind when I was just a boy,” Russ says. “Those seeds are still growing out of my toes.”
A self-taught expert, Russ says he has learned more through his own studies than he ever could have in school. In 1974, he quit his job managing a wire manufacturing plant in Los Angeles to dig for fossils on a 256-acre property in Kern County he had recently purchased with his new wife. The couple had met at the plant and bonded through their shared interest in geology.
Over years of digging, the Kern property proved to be a prolific and astounding view into the marine life that inhabited the once-submerged Central Valley millions of years ago. By scooping up bucket loads of weathered material with a Bobcat backhoe and sieving through it on screens, Russ and Pamela unearthed hundreds of thousands of fossils – encompassing 172 ancient species – including a sea lion skull, dolphin and whale bones that are now displayed in the shop’s education room.
Among their discoveries were approximately 1.5 million shark teeth, which the couple continues to sell. In the warehouse, customers can purchase specimens in bulk, sourced from mines in South America, Mexico and Canada, where the Shoemakers have often visited. In earlier years, the store would ship in crate loads of 7-foot-tall amethyst geodes and sell them online.
Today, the business’s dealings in bulk have slowed, with sales shifting toward jewelry and individual geological specimens. The couple runs the store alone with some help from friends, and Pamela wears many hats managing the front of the shop and purchasing merchandise.
“We’re a destination store,” Pamela says, noting a tourist clientele that seeks out the rock shop as a must-see spot. “I love buying things that people will enjoy.”
Russ, who typically works in the warehouse and gives tours, says his body can no longer keep up with his active mind. Still, the lifelong enthusiast continues to give presentations each week to classes of all ages. He hopes his “Earth Science Emporium” can capture the imagination of the next generation.
“I learned all I could and teach others because some people don’t know how dependent we are on the Earth and its elements,” Russ says. “You are literally eating rocks for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in different forms. … There are 30 essential elements for life. Rocks are an aggregate of minerals, and minerals are nothing more than basic elements.”
That way of looking at the world, paired with an array of curiosities both inanimate and once-living, can hook a child in a way that lasts a lifetime. Many of the youths Russ inspired are now grown and working as geologists, paleontologists and marine biologists. Sometimes, they bring their own children back to visit the gem of a store in the Mother Lode.
“It’s a wonderful feeling that I helped them find what they love,” Russ says with a smile.
To recommend a business to be featured in the Enterprise, contact Dakota Morlan at email@example.com.