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Sunday Story: World of Earth

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Packard Stamps & Rocks sells stamps and rocks.

But that’s not why collectors have flocked here for three generations.

Packard Stamps & Rocks also sells wonder.

The modest brick building on Midlothian Turnpike is one of those mythical places that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. In 1,234 square feet, there are hundreds of thousands of rock specimens – an array that bewilders the eye. Stones beetle green and milky white; stones that fluoresce and stones that shimmer; stones shaped like obelisks, skulls and spheres.

You can spend big on rare rocks, if you like. Or pay just a dollar for a chunk of Midlothian coal. For $ 2, you can buy a piece of fulgurite: Saharan sand fused by lightning. For 75 cents more, you can have some tiny flakes of Virginia gold. There’s opal and obsidian, malachite and ammonites, fossilized dinosaur dung, and oysters that are 158 million years old.

First-time visitors gape. Then they start asking questions.

“It’s a wonderful thing to watch how excited they get,” says owner David Packard, 72. Every stone has a story, and he knows them all.

The rest of the family have their own specialties. Older brother Jim is a stamp expert. Niece Kathy makes the earrings and bracelets for sale. When a customer wants to string beads for a bracelet, she’ll help them get started right in the store. Nephew Mark can teach you to wire-wrap stones.

“As the song goes, we’ve been alive forever. We have learned so much, ”David says.

In the 1920s his father, G. James Packard, put himself through school by selling stamps to other students. His wife, Alice Packard, had been a collector since she was 10. After they married in 1935, they merged their collections – isn’t that romantic? – and opened Packard Stamp Company the next year.

Back then, business was mainly conducted via mail order, on approval. Customers would order stamps from a catalog, for a penny or two apiece. Anything they didn’t like, they’d return. David helped process those orders when he was just 5 or 6 years old.

The family began collecting rocks as a hobby in 1960. Jim’s wife, Brenda Irons Packard, was the catalyst. On a road trip in the Adirondack Mountains, she paused in a restaurant’s driveway to pick up tiny rocks. “What are you doing?” G. James Packard asked.

She was gathering ruby-red garnets. The driveway had been paved with tailings from the famed Barton Mines.

“That sparked everybody’s interest,” Jim says. “We gradually became rock people.”

They placed a few pieces in the window of their first tiny stamp shop on Route 60, just to catch the eyes of passersby. Customers wanted to buy them. The Packards said no, until one man fell so hard for a particularly dazzling geode that he insisted on buying it for $ 75 – enough to pay three months’ rent.

Packard’s Rock Shop was in business. It grew, slowly, and moved a few times before settling into its current location in 1985. You probably know the sign, which features a rotating selection of rock-themed jokes and puns.

On this particular Wednesday, Packard’s is packed. With young women, mostly, who move among the glass cases in a swirl of flowing dresses and tattoos.

“Do you still have that geode?” one asks.

“I don’t even want to call it space debris, but imagine this being kind of like space debris from that planet?” another browser says to a friend.

Packard’s has seen a surge in customers who are fascinated by the metaphysical properties of stones and crystals: tiger’s eye for motivation, labradorite for protection, rose quartz for love.

Many believe that they don’t choose the rock; the rock chooses them, David explains. Friends ask each other, “Which one is calling you? Which one wants you to buy it? ”

The rocks call to David, too, but in a profoundly different way. He’s a scientist who majored in geology and then pursued advanced studies in gemology.

All rocks make him happy. They don’t have to be pretty. A lifetime of study has taught him to see below the surface.

“People look at something, and things like color mean so much to them,” he observes. But color, on its own, means little: “Almost everything can come in purple.” Gemology is the science of what isn’t – eliminating possibilities via microscope and refractometer until you can be certain of an identification.

One case holds his own little Virginia museum. Iron stalactites from a cave in Covington, exposed in the catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Camille. A large cluster of staurolites from Fairy Stone State Park. Petrified wood from Berkeley Plantation that’s 225 million years old. A glittering pyrite egg found in Staunton.

David knows all the places in and around Richmond where once you could find smoky quartz crystals, vivianite and other treasures – places now covered by housing developments, or the VCU Medical Center parking garage.

Incredibly, he also knows the location of every last stone and stamp in the shop. With a caveat: “If I put it there, I know where it is,” he says.

How many individual stones does he have? “It’s at least six figures,” he muses. “I would not at all be surprised if it was seven figures.” That’s including the rocks stashed in the farmhouse where he’s lived for 71 years. “And far more stamps.”

Let us not neglect the stamps. Most people do. The thick binders labeled “soccer,” “Sri Lanka” and “Sweden # 1” don’t often get pulled from the shelf. But stamps have their own particular magic.

For David, it’s not about their value. It’s not about the history, either. It’s about imposing order on chaos.

To sort and identify them, you invent a system, then refine it as you go along. “You get totally lost in what you’re doing, and you lose all track of time. You’re completely absorbed in the hobby. You’re working on your stamps. … You’re concentrating on something wonderful. ”

Now comes the greatest systems-building challenge his mind has yet encountered: Packard’s is expanding. Work is nearly complete on a two-story addition, reinforced with steel beams to hold the tremendous weight of rocks and stamp books. It will be used for storage, freeing up space in the area that’s open to the public.

“The goal is to get things organized here before we set them up there,” David says, surveying the showroom.

Behind the counter, Kathy sputters with laughter. “Yeah, I have a lot of faith,” she says.

David only smiles. He’s already working it out.


Packard Stamps & Rocks is open Monday through Saturday at 13131 Midlothian Turnpike.

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