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Business of the Month: The Evolution Store, 687 Broadway

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Our neighborhoods contain countless ways to reward the curious with unexpected discoveries. For those, however, whose curiosity reaches across geological time scales and climatic zones, there is our February Business of the Month. The Evolution Store at 687 Broadway (near West 3rd Street) has, for over three decades, offered an immersive introduction into the worlds of mineralogy, paleontology, taxidermy, entomology, and marine biology. This introduction has involved access to a captivating collection of curiosities, a dose of education, and the possibility of walking out of the store with a show-stopping conversation piece for your coffee table. 

The story of the Evolution Store, like that of many idiosyncratic creations, begins with the early passions and interests of a precocious and inquisitive boy. Bill Stevens began collecting natural history specimens, minerals, and native African and Asian art at an early age, starting with small gifts that his father would bring back from his far-ranging work trips. As Bill grew, so did the size and breadth of his collection. By the time he embarked on a career as a photo editor, he had developed a sizable network of fellow collectors, as well as other useful contacts related to his hobby. This network facilitated Bill’s transition away from his job when, confronted with his profession’s shift toward software-based photo editing, he decided to pursue his passions full time.

The Evolution Store opened in 1993 as a natural outgrowth of Bill’s collecting, and as almost an extension of his living room. The name reflected his affinity for the work of early naturalists. The arrangement of the store evinced the spirit of scientific inquiry that guided his own collecting practices. And the merchandise itself came from his own collection. Unlike many collectors, Bill attached less importance to his acquisitions than to the thrill of travel, new personal connections, and discovery that led to them. While he did keep a few treasured items when he launched the store, including presents from his father, African native artwork, and a set of fossilized spinosaurus teeth, he was happy to part with the rest and, in doing so, have further reasons to indulge in the joys of the hunt.

The store’s merchandise categories have from the outset tracked Bill’s personal interests, only drifting marginally over the years, even after his daughter and son-in-law, Julianna Stevens and Michael da Cunha, took over the reins in 2015. These include: minerals and meteorites, which come in a wide range of colors, sizes, and textures;

fossils, the collection of which boasts museum-quality specimens, like a full cave bear skeleton;

taxidermy, which covers the aquatic, aerial, and terrestrial, from the flamboyant to the unassuming;

animal skeletons;

and entomology, where specimens come either mounted in-house, unmounted, or encased in candy, for a toothsome, insectile treat that tastes like nuts (or so they say).

In all cases, the store not only makes an effort to ethically source its merchandise, but it unpacks the various aspects of that effort for each item so as to allow customers to make informed decisions, based on their preferences. These aspects include attempts to minimize ecological impact by selling by-products of other industries or, as in the case of butterflies, by purchasing from operations that support the local ecosystem. They also involve a preference for sourcing products from small, domestic businesses — a practice that supports local economies and reduces the store’s carbon footprint.

A key element in the presentation of the store’s merchandise consists of accompanying scientific descriptions that provide an introduction to the products on display, rendering them more broadly accessible. This emphasis on educating customers and equipping them to better appreciate the wonders of the natural world may constitute one of the secrets behind the store’s longevity. Trends built around the spiritual or macabre dimensions of artifacts come and go; but there will always be a kid eager to learn more about dinosaurs. In fact, a sizable portion of the Evolution Store’s customers are generational, parents who visited the store as children and who now, as adults, visit with their own kids. That, of course, is not the extent of it. Curious people with nerdy proclivities come in all packages and often enough from distant lands, drawn by the store’s national renown and by the promise of either long-sought finds or welcome surprises. Recently, an out-of-town customer stumbled upon a bull scrotum used as a display case for dozens of raccoon bacula. He purchased the entire supply, display case included, intending to place it by the entrance of his home and to offer a baculum as a parting gift to all visitors. He was Canadian.

The unique nature of the collectibles at the Evolution Store is both an asset and a challenge. It rewards repeated visits with the excitement of novelty. It also, however, makes it difficult to meet the not-infrequent requests for items similar to ones purchased long ago. Some products come from singular suppliers that regularly go out of business. Rare specimens are purchased when they become available; and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Still, the store does work with customers to accommodate special requests, often even working with artisans to create personalized products, like customized, built-in curio cabinets or displays. It also makes use of its extensive supplier and customer networks to locate both requested items and likely customers for particular acquisitions.

The networks that undergird the Evolution Store operation are built on personal relations accumulated and fostered over the years. These relations are not so easy to transfer in the event of the sale of the store. And yet, that is precisely what Julianna and Michael are preparing to do. For almost a decade, the couple has run the store, shepherding its move from its original location in SoHo to its current one, expanding its online component, and navigating the obstacles posed by the pandemic. They also, however, moved upstate, making the proper management of the shop impractical. They considered shutting it down and retaining only its online component, but found that alternative less interesting than that of retaining the physical store in the city and allowing people to keep enjoying it. As luck would have it, they have found an interested buyer in their new manager Miranda Clement, who shares their passion for the merchandise and some familiarity with the operations of this kind of business. The plan would be to do the transition slowly and for the couple to remain as consultants while Miranda gets her footing. One of the first decisions looming on the horizon is where to relocate the store, since the current landlord refused to renew its lease. The owners hope to do so within the neighborhood — a decision that has our enthusiastic support. 

For awakening the explorer in all of us for over thirty years, we are thrilled to name the Evolution Store our February 2024 Business of the Month. 

What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc

Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month:

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