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Fossil Shop to Go Way of Dinosaurs

Paleontologist Henry Galiano with a dinosaur skull in his basement work studio behind Maxilla & Mandible.
Paleontologist Henry Galiano with a dinosaur skull in his basement work studio behind Maxilla & Mandible.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — The Upper West Side's Maxilla & Mandible will soon have something in common with the dinosaur bones it sells — it will be a thing of the past.

The fossil dealer and natural history emporium at 451 Columbus Ave. will close at the end of August, owner Henry Galiano told DNAinfo.

Galiano, a self-trained paleontologist, opened the store in 1984, after working for 12 years in the American Museum of Natural History's department of vertebrate paleontology. At the museum he fielded countless phone calls from the public asking where they could buy or rent dinosaur skeletons and the like.

"After a while, I was like, duh, there's a business here," Galiano said. "It was a no brainer."

He selected the Columbus Avenue and West 81st Street location because it's only one block north of the museum.

Today, the shop functions as an unofficial retail offshoot of the museum, a place where shoppers who've just visited the world's premiere natural history institution can interact with — and buy — fossils, shells, minerals and other specimens.

Walking into Maxilla & Mandible feels like stumbling into an attic where an explorer has stashed a lifetime of discoveries. A toothy crocodile skull smiles at visitors from the front display window, a stuffed boar's head stares down from one wall, and moths the size of an adult's hand are pinned inside nearby display cases. A basket of "assorted bones" sits on one shelf (six bones for $1.)

The store's oldest items are Ice Age-era squid fossils, 450 million- to 500 million-year-old specimens that sell for $7 each.

But customers who need a fossil verified for authenticity and appraised will also find what they need at Maxilla & Mandible, Galiano said.

"Yes, we do retail, but we're really scientific contractors," Galiano said. "You can walk in with any problem in the world of natural history and we can help you."

Galiano also operates a dinosaur quarry in Wyoming which digs up and assembles sauropod skeletons, and he consults with museums and auction houses worldwide that need expert advice on all matters prehistoric. In a basement work studio tucked behind the store, Galiano and a team of palentologists, osteologists and others work on special projects such as reconstructing a prehistoric deer skeleton and preparing dinosaur bones to be donated to the American Museum of Natural History.

Store employee Stephen Finch, 20, said Maxilla & Mandible's closure would be a "tremendous loss," not just for shoppers who walk in off the street but for people like him who discovered the world of natural history through the store.

Finch started visiting Maxilla & Mandible as a 5-year-old when his grandfather took him there as a treat — an hour-and-a-half trip from Finch's home in Queens. He started working at the store three years ago, and because of connections he's made there, he spent three months in Wyoming at Galiano's dinosaur quarry and worked at a fossil lab in Salt Lake City this past summer. Now he's planning to become a research paleontologist.

"For a lot of people, myself included, this store is what inspired them to do what they're doing with their lives," said Finch, a Queens College geology major.

The same goes for 14-year-old Jake Johnson, an Upper West Sider who's been shopping at the store since he was 6, during a phase when he was fascinated by shark teeth. Since then he's amassed a collection of Maxilla & Mandible purchases that includes a stuffed barracuda, a boar skull, and a trilobite fossil (ancestors of today's insects).

Johnson, who will be a freshman at Beacon High School this fall, also developed a love of science at the store and says his experiences at Maxilla & Mandible inspired him to pursue a career as a marine biologist.

"I'm disappointed, "Johnson said. "Everyone here knows so much about what they're selling. In other stores, they know hardly anything. It's a great store and I wish it could stay open."

Galiano said keeping Maxilla & Mandible afloat during the economic downturn has been a challenge, in large part because the new bike lane on Columbus Avenue dealt a serious blow to his business.

At first Galiano thought the bike lane, which was installed in August 2010, would be a "minor inconvenience" that would make it more difficult for delivery trucks to pull up to the curb, he said.

But the bike lane also removed 67 parking spots from Columbus Avenue, and Galiano said he believes the lack of parking cost him at least 10 percent in sales this year.

He felt the impact at Christmas. That's when big-spending customers from across the tri-state area used to pull up in limos or cars, hop out, and peruse the store's special collections of unique — and expensive — fossils that weren't available to the general public.

But last Christmas those high-end buyers didn't show up at all. Many called to tell him they skipped visiting the store because they couldn't find parking, Galiano said.

"It was very discouraging," said Galiano, 60. "After a while, you say, I give up."

As word has spread of the impending closure, some longtime customers have broken down in tears, Galiano said. For some, Maxilla & Mandible is an Upper West Side landmark on par with Zabar's or the recently closed H&H Bagels.

Shoppers and science lovers alike flock to Maxilla & Mandible because it offers an escape from the city, Galiano said.

"New York is rough," Galiano, who's lived on the Upper West Side since 1971, said. "The only way to live in a city is to be able to get away from the city. People from the Upper West Side, they catch some fresh air by coming into our shop."