Walk into Christian Kaleta’s Mesa store, and you’ll be greeted by a sight you won’t find anywhere else in the retail world: Stan the Tyrannosaurus Rex, aka T. Rex, a $20,000 dinosaur skull replica.
“That’s our most popular attraction,” said Kaleta, who owns Tyrannostorus at 1816 W. Baseline Road, adding a skull that big takes about four-to-six months to produce.
“When you find a dinosaur or a cast, it’s a piece of art,” Kaleta said. “Whoever made that cast, owns the rights to that cast.”
T. Rex is one of many imitation and real skulls of hippopotamuses, giraffes, warthogs, polar bears, grazing animals from Africa, alligators and other creatures that range in price from $99 to as much as $2,000.
“I struggled with getting some of these (skulls) because we’re not a museum or university,” explained Kaleta. “I was told ‘no’ on some – that it’s not for the retail world but for education. Well, this is educational.”
Skulls aren’t the only things for sale at Tyrannosaurus.
“We have a full collection of dinosaur replicas such claws, teeth, thumb spikes, triceratops horn, raptor claws - all kinds of stuff kids go wild for as well as the full toy section with different species of dinosaur and prehistoric reptiles and mammals,” said manager Bryan Troglia.
The store even carries a big basket of coprolite, also known as dinosaur poo. “Very fun for the kids,” Troglia said. “You can buy as much poo as you like.”
“We also have different pieces of animals like their teeth and tusk,” said Troglia. “We have real warthog tusks, real alligator teeth and alligator tooth jewelry.”
The most popular activity is the sluice, according to Kaleta. Kids can dig for fossils and sift for treasure with purchased bags of sand.
They pour the sand into the sifting trays, excavate it and then pull out stones and gems. There are nine varieties of dirt for purchase ranging from $4.99 to $40. Some bags have gems and minerals. Other bags have arrowheads, seashells and fossils and even real emeralds.
“You can grab a $10 bag and the kids can come to play for a half-hour to an hour and learn,” said Kaleta, calling it an economical way to learn for families with several children.
“I have a 12-year-old son and we’re always looking for something different to do,” Kaleta said. “During the summer, we went to a fossil safari in Wyoming. We had so much fun. We brainstormed on the way back home.”
That’s what gave Kaleta the idea for the store. He wanted kids here to have a similar experience.
“I’ve always had an interest in dinosaur bones and fossils,” Kaleta added. “And, of course, my 12-year-old son has a major interest in this kind of stuff.”
Kaleta also owns the Predators Reptile Center in the same shopping center. Since his background is in exotic animals, he thought opening a store Tyrannostorus would be a great fit.
“We have a lot of educational stuff,” said Kaleta. “One of the biggest things with my son is everywhere we go, he loves museums and likes touching everything. That’s what kids do – they touch.
“I wanted to build a place for him to not get yelled at. We encourage kids to come in to play and touch even the expensive stuff. That’s fine. I want them to get close and personal with T. Rex to bring that imagination together.”
Another area of the store features some extinct mammals from the Ice Age and many of the relics were found in Arizona, including remnants of cave bears, dire wolves, the American lion and saber-tooth cat.
The store also carries fossils such as ammonites, trilobites and shark teeth. A shark tooth runs around $19.99. Some are still in the stone they were excavated from and retail for about $49.99.
“The interesting thing about sharks is they don’t have skeletons; they’re all cartilage,” explained Troglia. “The only thing you find is their teeth.”
The store’s sea life section contains shark jaws, corals, seashells, barnacles, replicas of a big 16-foot great white shark as well as its teeth. You can buy just a tooth or the whole jaw.
“We also have a wide variety of fossil plates that have been excavated out of quarries up in Wyoming, South Dakota,” said Troglia. “Shrimp, little fish like mackerel-sized fish, little squid, all kinds of cool stuff.”
Another section has model kits and authentic Arizona candies.
“It’s the kind of stuff you remember getting at your elementary school field trips. We have all of that along with a Geo table and gem bag.”
And there’s a wide selection of gemstones and precious metals such as bismuth, amethyst, citrine, agates and quartz.
“But probably one of our most popular specimen collections are our shadow box insects,” said Troglia. “They literally fly off the shelves but they’re also done by local artists which makes them unique to our store.”
Shadow boxes start at $79.99 and go up to about $250. The butterfly palettes are done by a separate artist and range from $400-$500.
“It’s fun not just for kids but for the entire family,” added Troglia. “When you come into our store, you always leave with something whether it’s something you purchase in the store or just a new piece of knowledge about natural history.”
Kaleta notices that parents are just as excited as their kids when entering the store.
“It’s interesting to watch because the kids start to do the activities such as the sluice or the digging but then the parents make their way in,” said Kaleta.
“And it’s interesting to watch the parents and kids interact,” he added. “Everything these days is electronic and hands-off. Kids are playing video games and parents are working. This is a chance to come in, get together and learn together and that’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Store hours are weekdays from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.