Best Place to Get Your Rocks Off

(Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan)

Best Place to Get Your Rocks Off

“That’s Okenite, the only rock you can pet. Just don’t get it wet, or you’ll destroy the fibers,” says 92-year-old George Burnham as his large, weather-worn hands pluck a cotton-ball-looking mineral from one of the thousands of nooks in what used to be a three-car garage. In 1946 the space was turned into a rock-and-mineral emporium called Burminco. The small wooden shelves and drawers that line the halls and fill the walls are crammed with hundreds of different rock and mineral varieties, housing more than 100 tons of stone in all.

Burnham’s infatuation goes back to his Lake Elsinore childhood, when he would venture out to the Pala gem mines with pal Leslie Merrifield. While working to help support his mother, father and five brothers at various grocery stores during the Great Depression, he also attended San Bernardino Valley College, where he studied mineralogy and geology. After World War II, he and his brother Wayne bought an old 4X4 weapons carrier and began excavating their own samples to sell in the shop.

Burnham’s days of fieldwork are over, but his shop remains an integral part of the mineral world. Most of his business is with teachers and conducted via fax and phone. Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech have come here since before the first moonwalk to buy samples to help predict “the effect of moon dust on the astronauts’ equipment,” and recently have been buying samples of kaolinite to aid their study of comet-tail composition.

It’s a surreal place framed by large glass cabinets filled with a rainbowlike assortment of rock and minerals: jet-black mica, fluorescent-yellow sulfur and midnight-blue azurite. As I exit down the small cement walkway, weaving through a metal forest of dull steel-wire baskets filled with raw specimens, I realize nothing has changed since my last visit here on an elementary-school field trip back in 1994, not even the smell. The musty and slightly acrid sulfur scent still clings to my nasal passages like a souvenir.

BurmiNco, 128 S. Encinitas Ave., Monrovia, (626) 358-4478

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