Wrap your hand around a crystal. Feel the cool smoothness. Perhaps it reminds you of your childhood, digging around in your yard for shiny rocks. Maybe it pulses with energy that feels healing to you. Or possibly you just figure it would look good on your windowsill.
Asheville’s a crystal town, and rock shops flourish here. In the Grove Arcade, Enter the Earth sells stickers declaring “Crystal Toting Tree Hugger,” and many locals and tourists alike take pride in that characterization.
“It’s like artwork from the Earth, so people are moved by this stuff, whether they’re moved energetically, or they’re moved visually, or are impressed with the age of something,” says Stacie Coller, manager at Enter the Earth.
Greg Turner, who owns Cornerstone Minerals on Lexington Avenue, says many Asheville residents’ anti-corporate sensibility inspires them to seek out natural items such as stones. “I think the younger generation, a good percentage of them are embracing the more unique, not the mass-produced,” he points out. “Especially in this town, a lot of the young people are more conscious-minded folks than they are in a lot of the rest of America.”
Over at Points of Light, a crystal and mineral gallery on Merrimon Avenue, owner Connie Olson says her sparkly geodes and gems put smiles on people’s faces. “You always feel happy when you’re around them. They’re beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” she says. “And they do have a way of making the energy in your room very happy and joyful.”
In the beginning
Both Turner and Enter the Earth owner Nader Kawar got into the business while peddling merchandise at music festivals — Kawar at Widespread Panic concerts and Turner at Phish shows.
Turner’s interest in minerals evolved out of a love for nature that had him breeding and selling snakes to pet shops at age 14. “I was an animal freak growing up,” he says. “I was interested in the natural world, and minerals are an extension of that. And you don’t have to feed them or water them.”
Olson opened Points of Light in 2009 after her husband suggested that her collection might have a higher purpose than just filling up their barn, but her passion for prehistoric pebbles predates that. “I grew up in the hills and hollers of Tennessee,” she says. “I was just always skinning and bloodying my knees up because I was looking on the ground for rocks all the time.”
Her store’s location near UNC Asheville suits Olson just fine: She can park out front, and the building is sturdy enough to hold big mineral specimens. “It’s not downtown, but people who are into crystals seek you out,” she says. “They find us.”
Kawar, who now co-owns Enter the Earth with his wife, Amy, debuted the shop in 2002, and it has thrived on the tourist traffic the Grove Arcade attracts. But the business has also reached out to local energy workers and healers. “We have a lot of holistic practitioners,” Coller notes. “Even if they don’t use rocks and minerals in their work, they often will have rocks and minerals there that support them.”
Going to the source
If you open a T-shirt shop, getting inventory from wholesalers is fairly straightforward. Rock shop owners, though, may travel the world in search of exceptional fossils and minerals.
“[Kawar] literally goes to Madagascar two or three times a year to make large purchases from the different mines and mine owners,” Coller says.
Turner, meanwhile, concentrates on South America, primarily Colombia. “We travel to source and procure directly at the mines or in the local markets,” he explains.
Seeing the mines firsthand also enables Turner to gauge the cultural and environmental impacts. “I get to see it, procure it there, see if it’s the right thing — you know, are these guys tearing up 50 acres, or is it just a little hole in the ground?” he says. “If I’m buying directly at the mine, I can see where the money goes. I can go back to this village a year later and see the church that was built with the money, or the school, or the miners’ houses are more up to par now.”
Olson doesn’t travel as much as she used to, but she says she hand-picks everything that Points of Light carries, and she relies on suppliers who know her tastes. “I just buy what I like, is what it comes down to,” she says. “I always figured that it would resonate with the people that like what I like, you know? There’s a couple other shops around town, and everybody has wonderful crystals and rocks, but we all have our own kind of what we like.”
Art from the Earth
Coller, too, is very clear about what she likes, because she literally feels it. “I am personally, tactilely sensitive to stones,” she reveals. “I used to be normal — admittedly it’s a while ago now. I ended up discovering that I’m sensitive to the energy of rocks like for real, like an actual feeling in my body.”
Coller says she’s happy to talk to customers about the more mystical properties of crystals, but only if they make it clear that they’re receptive. “We keep it very on the down-low,” she explains. “I need to hear some safe words first, because I’m not interested in being confrontational with my work.”
Customers seeking a stone for healing purposes, notes Coller, will often feel drawn to the appropriate one. “If somebody says, ‘I need a rock that’s good for this, that or the other,’ I’ll go, ‘OK, I will tell you what I would use myself, I will tell you what I would give to a friend going through the same thing, and then I want you to ignore me,’” she says. Instead, she directs them to “just go through the store and wait for your ‘Ooh!’ — that response of being naturally attracted to something.”
That affinity for stones’ essences led Coller and colleague Christopher Lee Matthews to start what she half-jokingly calls the Metaphysical Department of Enter the Earth. The name refers to an online-rooted extension of the shop that includes the 1,000-member WNC Crystal Toting Tree Huggers on Meetup.com and a monthly in-person event called Wooey Wednesdays, where people can share their skills and interests with others.
Turner estimates that 20-30 percent of Cornerstone’s clientele is energy-based. “We have a pretty heavy metaphysical market here; it could even be higher than that. How deep are they into it, it’s hard to say,” he continues. “Certain things like quartz are scientifically proven to produce electricity through compression. That’s energy. You can’t deny it.”
Olson says many of her customers are interested in a different type of energy — artistic. Her store features large geodes and unique crystal specimens whose primary appeal is aesthetic; she also sells stones to folks who use crystals in their art projects. At the same time, she notes, “A lot of people like to do beautiful grids for energy work, so you get people that look at it on all different levels.”
A sparkling future
Cornerstone began in Asheville but has since opened shops in Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., with a fourth location slated to open adjacent to Charleston’s City Market next spring. Turner says his goal is to eventually have about a dozen stores. “I don’t know if we’ll ever go nationwide; we’re looking into feasibilities of it,” he says. “We’ll definitely stay Southeast regional and expand out from where we are now.”
The rock shop niche has found a lucrative market in Asheville, and the city’s shops cultivate deep relationships with clients who rely on them for their crystal needs. “Business is great. I have no complaints,” Turner says. “We are up double percentage points every year since we’ve been open in all three of the stores. We had an increase in business during the recession, on the trade show side and the retail side.”
Some of that, Turner believes, is due to the fact that rocks are hot again. “Honestly, the metaphysical side recharged and is blossoming again like it was in the ’80s,” he says. “Hollywood has embraced, especially, the energy side of it. So anything Hollywood does can tend to have a positive effect.”
Olson describes her regular customers as family and says she’s delighted to see longtime customers’ children grow up and develop their own interest in stones. “Kids just absolutely love crystals, let me tell you,” she says. “They connect with all the crystals and rocks really well.”
Enter the Earth also encourages youthful browsers, giving any well-behaved youngster a free crystal. And Cornerstone invites children to experience the store’s rainbow array of stones as well as awe-inspiring items such as cave bear skulls, mammoth tusks and dinosaur teeth. “So much today is TV and video games and being stuck inside,” Turner observes. “This is a connection to the outside world. Even though it’s purchased in a shop, it may stimulate them to go, ‘Daddy, I want to dig here.’”
Unlike other types of retail, rock shops provide a place to not just buy stuff but to learn about and experience an aspect of the natural world. Walking into a store filled with gleaming minerals and luminescent crystals, Coller maintains, can reawaken childhood memories of sifting through the dirt in search of rocks. “There’s a lot of very positive emotional things happening,” she says. “People come in and they’re just so awestruck by how beautiful some of these things are. They don’t necessarily buy anything, and they don’t have to, but they’re like, ‘This store is amazing!’ It shifts them in some way.”