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THE BUSINESS OF BONES : Natural History Moves From Museum to Marketplace

January 10, 1988|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

David Cronin's workroom in his bungalow on the outskirts of Woodland Hills could easily serve as a set for some slice 'em, dice 'em horror movie.

Alligators skulls are crammed in the freezer. The bookshelves are lined with skeletons of snakes, rodents and other critters. And the work tables are littered with assorted piles of reptile bones and teeth.

Yet for Cronin, a 45-year-old artist and self-taught paleontologist, these animal remains are the raw ingredients of a fledgling business. Take, for example, the tiny snake bones. Cronin will painstakingly assemble more than 40 of them into the skeleton of a fully extended rattlesnake jaw, mount the creation on a wooden base, encase it in a glass dome and ship it to retail stores, where it will sell for upwards of $100.

"It's hard to make a living as a painter and this is a marketable skill," Cronin says of rattlesnake jaws and other handiwork.

He's not kidding.

The dinosaur mania among preschoolers, the revival of the Georgia O'Keeffe-inspired Santa Fe decorating style, a booming market for museum memorabilia and the stellar performance of gift shop chains like the Nature Company have combined to create a growing market for what might be called objets de paleontologie , that is, skulls, fossils and other osteological curios.

"There is nothing new about kids loving dinosaurs and people loving nature," says Owen Maercks, manager of East Bay Vivarium, a Berkeley-area store that recently added skulls and skeletons to its inventory of fossils and live reptiles. "It's just that entrepreneurs have finally caught on that this is a wonderful market."

The new interest in bones isn't for all, of course. Scientists worry that they are losing rare fossils to collectors. And not everyone is comfortable living around, say, a bull's skull.

Still, at Southwest Interiors in Van Nuys, owner Andrew Cross has resorted to peddling ceramic bull skulls because he can't keep enough of the real thing on hand. And natural history museum stores--once a retail backwater--are enjoying booming popularity.

One of the best examples of the market's strength has been the surprising success of the Nature Company, a chain of book, gift and curio shops specializing in natural history items. The chain, which opened its first shop in Berkeley in 1972, now has 21 stores across the nation and is expected to generate sales of about $25 million this year.

Inventory of Bones

"The idea is to take natural history out of the closet and make it fun," says Nature Company President Roger Bergen. "And it's working." So well, in fact, that the Nature Company has already attracted several copycats, including the Natural Wonders store in San Jose.

Toy companies continue to add dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures of all kinds to their wares.

Toy stores like Imaginarium have extensive science and nature offerings. The Young Naturalist catalogue from Newton, Kan., caters to budding young scientists. And L.A. Wildlife in Studio City sells only items with animal themes.

But perhaps the most bizarre evidence of the retail paleontology market is Maxilla & Mandible, a Manhattan shop whose inventory is limited exclusively to the bones and skeletons of almost any animal known to man.

The shop, whose name comes from the Latin terms for upper and lower jaw, counts among its customers President Reagan's youngest son Ron, rock impresario Bill Graham and actress Diane Keaton.

Henry Galiano, who opened the store on trendy Columbus Avenue two years ago, believes that he's on the cutting edge of a whole movement back to natural fabrics, textures and environments.

"We're coming out of a high-tech phase," he says. "Things are coming back to nature."

For whatever reason, Galiano's formula seems to be working. Last year, he says he sold about $500,000 worth of his wares, which range from $16 muskrat skulls for the "little collector" to the $4,800, 12-foot python that enticed promoter Graham.

Without a doubt, Galiano's best customer is Scott Sherrin, a Manhattan dentist who has about 80 skeletons hanging in his loft apartment. The prize of the collection, in which Sherrin admits to have invested "well over $10,000," is a full leopard skeleton. Soon, however, he will be buying a hippopotamus skull, which is sure to shift the spotlight from the leopard.

"Why do I do it?" Sherrin asks. "I look at this from the intrinsic beauty of the structures. The anatomical and evolutionary aspects of it interest me. Besides, I'm bringing back a part of nature into my home without the adverse aspects of taxidermy."

Nevertheless, Sherrin says not everybody finds his hobby all that captivating. "A lot of people think my wife is a saint," he confesses.

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