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It's rockin' at Doc's Gem Mine and Appalachian Fossil Museum in new location

A good number of 6-year-old boys in America grow up with a passion for baseball, others for football or basketball. Somewhat fewer become fascinated with painting pictures, making music, or expressing their creativity through dance. None of those were what ignited the passion or lifelong interest of Blowing Rock’s Randy “Doc” McCoy.

Photo by David Rogers 

Gems found at Doc’s can be cut and refashioned as designer jewelry.

For him, it was rocks. He liked the different colors, the different shapes, the different textures, the different patterns.

McCoy’s first profession was in healthcare. He was a doctor, first in hospital emergency rooms, then in the military. He earned his medical degree at Duke University.

“A lot of guys,” he said, “when they get out of military service, they go into law enforcement. That wasn’t me. I had a passion for rocks.

“I have been collecting rocks since I was 6, walking the beach with my mom,” said McCoy, with a still childlike gleam in his eye. “She kind of got me into it. When I retired from the medical field, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to stay in medicine, and I didn’t want to go into law enforcement. I love all of those guys and what they do, but I knew that wasn’t for me. And I was too short and too broken to play basketball.”

Photo by David Rogers 

Dozens of different types of uncut gemstones are on display and for sale at Doc’s Gem Mine – and you get an education in geology, too.

So, McCoy enrolled at Appalachian State University to study his lifelong passion, rocks (AKA “geology”). He added recreation management to his academic pursuits and the double major soon paid dividends.

“I started Doc’s Gem Mines my sophomore year, in 2007,” McCoy said. “It just kind of took off from there. I started the fossil museum in 2011.”

Everybody loves rocks, McCoy said in describing the market opportunity.

Photo by David Rogers 

This life-size model was designed and made by the same people who created the dinosaurs for the Jurassic Park movie series, custom made for Appalachian Fossil Museum.

“There is something about the color or texture that gets your attention,” he said. “Some people like to wear them. Some like to look at a particular rock’s uniqueness and then understand what happened in nature to make it what it is. There is something for everybody in geology.”

Greek and Latin derived names for geologic structures and the creatures that inhabited the eons, eras and periods of geology roll off McCoy’s tongue like a doctor describing, scientifically, a patient’s medical condition. McCoy’s language is more about where an oil reserve might have come from a Permian basin, or the paleontologist knowing that a trilobite comes from the Devonian period in the Paleozoic era. There is immediate, definitive meaning to the scientific words that for laymen might well just be spoken in the foreign language they are.

If anything, what separates McCoy, Doc’s Gem Mine and the fossil museum apart from mere tourist-oriented competitors is their focus on detail and a commitment to education.

Pointing to a couple of dinosaur models in the soon-to-reopen fossil museum, McCoy explained the attention to detail and accuracy through research.

“We had those custom made,” he said, “based on the research we have now of these specific dinosaurs, including how they look and their muscle structure, how they carried themselves, their strengths, their weaknesses, all of that stuff. We had these custom made based on the facts of what they would look like back then.”

The models are not cheap imitations.

“These were made by the same people that did the designs for the “Jurassic Park” and ‘Walking With Dinosaurs” movies. Each piece takes them about a month to build. There is a lot of detail work that we want to go into them. You notice, for example, that the small one is really bright and the larger one quite a bit darker. The larger one, you see, lived in a more volcanic area so he would be covered with ashes. We had these made to be as specific as possible to the way things were.”

Hanging from the ceiling of the fossil museum is a display that might take your breath away once you realize what you are looking at. The fossil skeleton has been reassembled below a a pelican-looking creature with a 16-20 foot wingspan.

“That guy was found down near Charleston, S.C.,” McCoy said. “It was at the end of the runway when they were extending the airport. That is the actual fossil and a sculpture re-creation hanging above it.”

Walking around the museum further, our attention shifts to what McCoy calls “Bob,” short for “bag of bones” embedded in a rock face. It is a mixture of fossils from plant eaters and meat eaters.

“You could do a whole newspaper article just on this one bag of bones,” he said. “There are teeth, there are jaw bones, and more. It is one of my favorite displays because, looking at it, it is so abstract.”

Turn around, and we trace a man-made re-creation of a dinosaur footpath, ending with the actual fossilized footprint of the real thing some millions of years ago.

There’s the head of T-Rex, as well as what looks like the ancestor of a giant alligator.

And how do you explain those squiggly, irregular shapes? Are they rocks?

Chuckling, McCoy explains that a lot of kids take special delight in the display.

“That’s actually fossilized dinosaur poop,” he said.

Anyone who has had a particularly big bowel movement can probably relate to what the dinosaur went through in delivering that for the enjoyment of homo sapien kids millions of years later.

Doc’s Gem Mine and the Appalachian Fossil Museum are subsidiaries of McCoy Minerals, Inc., headquartered at 537 Main Street in Blowing Rock. The building doubles as the company jewelry and lapidary gallery and retailer.

“We sell a lot more of the higher end specimens, both fossils and gem stones at the McCoy Minerals location. We also carry watch lines.”

Moving to a new location

From inception in 2007, Doc’s Gem Mine and later the fossil museum were located at 111 Mystery Hill Lane, just off of U.S. 321, between Blowing Rock and Boone. Because his lease at that location was coming due on Oct. 1, 2020, McCoy said he had been exploring options as that date approached.

“Actually,” he said, “I was talking with Mayor Charlie Sellers about trying to get the fossil museum moved into Blowing Rock so, among other things, it could benefit the school. The museum had grown to the point where we needed more space.”

As it turned out, McCoy found more space for both of those businesses, which are separate enterprises but still related.

By taking on the space at the front of Tanger Outlets, McCoy has tripled the space he previously had available for the Appalachian Fossil Museum and at least double, but maybe close to tripling the space he has for Doc’s Gem Mines. Plus, it is a symbiotic relationship with the outlet center. He benefits from the Shoppes on the Parkway traffic entering the center right next to his business, and Tanger gets greater exposure because of Doc’s visitors.

Photo by David Rogers 

This fossilized dinosaur ‘poop’ is millions of years old.

“Tanger has been great to work with,” said McCoy. “I think they are changing their business model a bit, moving toward family attraction types of businesses as much as factory outlet stores with the emergence of and general market acceptance of online retailing, which really gained momentum during the pandemic. A lot of the big clothing manufacturers and apparel lines are moving more online and that opens up spaces at shopping centers like this. It makes attractive spaces available to smaller businesses like ours.

“This space allows us to really focus on social distancing during these pandemic times,” McCoy said. “We have a great relationship with Mystery Hill. We send them customers and they send us customers. But over there with the occupancy requirements imposed on us, we might be able to get two or three families into our space for the gem mine, at half capacity. Here, half capacity is 75 people. That’s a big difference.”

McCoy is committed to his customer’s experience being as educational as possible. That’s true at the Gem Mine, as well as the fossil museum.

“In the fossil museum, it is a guided tour,” he said. “When a guest comes back here, they will get a one-one-one experience with all kinds of information about each fossil: what it is, who collected it, where it came from, even whether we found it or someone donated it or if we purchased it.”

While McCoy will sometimes serve as tour guide, he won’t be the only one.

“We hire App State geology students and train them,” he said.

As an enhancement for a college geology student’s education, it doesn’t get much better than the opportunity to work either at McCoy’s gem mine or fossil museum.

“We have more real fossils on display here than at a big, publicly-funded museum,” said McCoy. “I can show you stuff that they can’t and that opens up a lot of doors for people to learn. The big museums that are publicly funded have some constraints, including insurance. They might inherit or purchase a collection and make a copy of that collection to put on display but keep the real thing in a lab to still do testing and such, or stored in an archive. Students might occasionally get to come in to learn off of that one piece, but the public doesn’t get to see the real thing. As a private museum, we can do things a bit differently. We have no state funding or federal funding. Sometimes it hurts our pockets because we don’t have that state support.”

Walking around the museum, McCoy points out items that come from England, Montana, South Carolina, North Carolina and Wyoming, among others.

Photo by David Rogers 

The Appalachian Fossil Museum offers a view into the distant past.

“Up on that wall is a 30-foot prehistoric fish,” he said, “and that emmonite over there came from Texas. I found that myself. Personally, I do two rock hound tours a month, all summer long.”

And the facts and information keep coming, in a constant flow. The giant, prehistoric alligator was found in Tennessee. T-Rex’s skull is the real deal, mounted on a rotating pedestal that goes round and round, each rotation taking a minute and fourteen seconds. T-Rex (short for tyrannosaurus rex) came from Montana, found by Jerry Jacene, of the Chattanooga area.

“For a lot of our collection,” McCoy said, “we raise money. We have two donation boxes in our museum for our visitors to take some ownership. The giant alligator, we are still paying for. The big fish? We just got that and I paid the first $500 on it but we still owe $15,000. This isn’t a cheap endeavor.”

Talking about financing, McCoy said that the fossil museum alone is a few dollars shy of $10 million.

“I personally have invested close to $3 million into this business over the years, out of my own pocket,” he said. “I went about six years here without collecting a paycheck. So, you can bet that we are very well insured and this place is heavily guarded.”

You learn a lot from talking with McCoy. After he pointed out a couple of fossils that came from Canada and Montana, he was asked why so many of the fossils come from the Rocky Mountain region and not so much from the Carolinas.

“Simple,” he said, knowingly. “Back in the dinosaur period, the Carolinas were under water. We get the oceanic fossils, such as the prehistoric fish and pelican-type creatures, but during the dinosaurs’ time you would not have found them here, not at all.”

It is information such as this which drives home McCoy’s commitment to education, a passion that he is sharing as much as he can with Appalachian State, as well as setting up workshops for students at Blowing Rock School.

“If you compare us to any other gem mine in the state, we are absolutely the best value for what you get for your dollar,” McCoy said. “We are authentic. We are the ONLY gem mine backed by the North Carolina Board of Education. We teach about what you find, everything you go through has to come from North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, or Virginia.”

“There is so much here, so much to talk about,” he said. “You could spend hours just thinking about what you might write about.”

While Doc’s Gem Mine has already opened, McCoy is busy readying the Appalachian Fossil Museum for a Jan. 22 opening. The “grand opening” is tentatively scheduled for April.

A Penny Path to survival -- and more

BLOWING ROCK — Some might call him an idealist but, if they do, their description should also include, “survivor.”

Looking around his new café and creperie in Blowing Rock’s Tanger Outlets center, Shoppes on the Parkway, Buzov’s skill as a master craftsman in woodworking and making custom cabinets is clearly evident from the walls to the ceiling and even in the seating.

“My daughter, Mira, and I did all of this in about three months,” he said while sweeping his hand through the air with a gesture of ownership, pointing out the woodwork and fixtures.

The Blowing Rock location is now the third in Buzov’s mini-chain of eateries. The other two are in Winston-Salem and High Point, the latter being the first. To hear his stories, Buzov may have a patent on bad timing.

At least on the surface, there may not have been a better place for a woodworking craftsman to settle than High Point, one of the premier furniture hubs of the world.

“When we first visited High Point,” said Buzov, “it was full of activity. Downtown was bustling and I thought no place in the world could be better.

“Then when we came back to move to High Point,” he said with a smile, “it was a different town. There was very little activity at all. That’s when I learned that we happened to visit during that five-week period of ‘the market,’ when all of the furniture manufacturers are in town, wheeling and dealing.”

In spite of his deceiving first look at High Point, he survived, plying his trade mostly in the construction industry.

“I helped with wood finishes and custom cabinetry for homes, hotels and restaurants,” he said, “as well as apartment buildings all over the Triad region (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point). Eventually, I decided to open my own small restaurant and I wanted to do it in downtown High Point. It was my small way of helping invigorate the downtown, to show others that it could be done.”

Buzov readily admits that money is not the driving force in his life. Yes, he admits to being an idealist. He wants his life to be about more than money. He wants to have a positive impact on the community he serves, in however small of a way, and he wants to enjoy what he is doing.

Having a store logo that looks like Abraham Lincoln was dressed up for Halloween when posed for his portrait on the face of a “penny” certainly must be part of the fun, but the penny was symbolic, too, in the opening of his first value-conscious creperie.

Photo by David Rogers 

The name may include ‘penny,’ suggesting value, but the Penny Path also has elegance.

The decision to start a small restaurant business came out of a need to survive. With the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, the construction business in the Triad — like in other parts of the country — dried up. Contractors for whom he had been working, building out and furnishing restaurants among other businesses, were failing.

“So I decided to leave the industry with the second highest failure rate to start a business in the industry with the highest failure rate,” he said.

Starting a restaurant business in the heart of downtown High Point, next to monolith office buildings and showrooms that are mostly vacant except for five weeks out of the year, seems daunting.

During that last recession, Buzov admitted that he was as broke as he could possibly be.

“We were boiling water to take a bath, camping out in our own house,” he said. “I was calling my father asking for help to pay my mortgage.

“But at the same time,” he said, “I was looking to make a break from the woodworking business and cabinet shop. I got lucky in finding our first location, which was only 600 square feet. I went scavenging for materials. We really didn’t have any money. We were hoping that people would beat a path made with pennies from our doorway to our register, bringing their dollars. ... It was a good metaphor, penny path, and it stuck.”

He and his wife survived, even thrived, and a few years ago opened a second creperie in Winston-Salem. The original High Point location is now a little more than nine years old. With two daughters old enough to manage their own locations, here they are with their third creperie , in Blowing Rock.

“We have visited Blowing Rock many times through the years,” he said, “but we were not initially looking here. We had looked at Boone and a couple of years ago we were looking at Morganton and Marion as possible locations for our third restaurant, but then a chance meeting led to our discovering this location and this opportunity. Someone associated with the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce happened to come into our High Point restaurant and they really liked it. That started a conversation.”

Reflecting back on his earlier years in Germany, Buzov described a life as a craftsman serving the needs of restaurants, cocktail bars, bistros, and such.

“I love the hospitality industry,” he said. “I just love the whole entire environment.”

And yet, there is risk.

“In some respects,” he said, “It is a scary thing to do something like this. And when we started down this path for opening a new store, we didn’t know that the pandemic was right around the corner. We signed the lease in December of 2019, and we were just about ready to come in here, in late February and early March, and get it ready to open in May. But I was learning about what was happening with COVID back in Europe and decided to postpone the whole construction aspect of upfitting the space. There was too much uncertainty.”

That postponement phase ended in October and Buzov and his daughter rolled up their respective sleeves and got to work.

“I am thrilled to be here,” he said, as his daughter looked on, smiling. “We have met so many wonderful people in Blowing Rock, especially in the business community. I am very humbled because I feel very welcome here.”

The concept for crepes is a sort of old family tradition.

“My grandma,” he said, “taught me to make these crepes in a pan. I love crepes. They are therapeutic for me!”

Blowing Rock Town Council Meeting: New police offers sworn in, Foggy Rock to expand

BLOWING ROCK — The Jan. 12, Blowing Rock Town Council meeting saw the swearing in of the village’s newest police officers and a proposal by the popular Foggy Rock restaurant to expand its outdoor seating.

During the meeting, which was broadcast to the public via Zoom, the town of Blowing Rock Police Department held a virtual swearing-in ceremony for three new officers. The new officers were sworn in by the town’s police Chief Arron Miller and included officers Caleb Lowrance, Gracie Brown and Matthew McBurney.

“We’ve had vacancies in our department for about two years, that’s not because nobody applied,” said Miller. “That’s because we wait to select people who we think are going to be the best fit for our community and the best fit for our department.”

In addition to the swearing-in ceremony, Miller also awarded officer Alan Hunt with the Life Saving Award. “We like to recognize some of the outstanding accomplishments of some of our employees,” said Miller. Hunt received the award after responding to a call in which he performed life saving CPR to a critically ill, unconscious man at the Blowing Rock Inn while on patrol on Nov. 15.

Following the ceremony, a public hearing was held at the request of the Foggy Rock Restaurant, which sought an amendment to its conditional use permit which would allow up to 40 seats of additional outdoor seating on the southside of the building. In July 2020, the restaurant was granted approval for the construction of an arcade in the eatery’s basement, which is no longer being built. According to the restaurant’s proposal, outdoor dining would be expanded on the front left of the building and feature a new covered porch area, as well as a seating area in front of the new porch.

“We’re listening to our customers and people are changing their habits. We’ve decided to have more outdoor seating and to make our visibility from the highway a little nicer looking and a little greener,” said Burt Myers, owner of Foggy Rock. “People are going to want to eat outside more and this will give us the opportunity to spread people apart on the inside. We can spread our tables a little bit further apart. Going forward this seems to be the best way to run our business.”

The required parking for the restaurant and proposed outdoor seats would be 40 parking spaces. Foggy Rock’s proposal would include the formalization of 14 gravel spaces which would be paved for a total of 43 paved parking spots. Currently, the restaurant has 33 paved parking spaces and several gravel overflowed parking spots. The new plan would also bring about the construction of a 16-foot opaque buffer along the rear of the lower parking area by the King’s Ransom subdivision. In addition, a planted buffer would be added along the stream culvert headwall where the stream opens up behind the building.

Neighbors who would be most affected by Foggy Rock’s proposal had an opportunity to voice their concerns, which ranged from worries about increased noise and storm water run-off, to the upkeep of proposed barriers and smoking in the restaurant’s new outdoor space.

“My property line immediately abuts the property line that we’re talking about in the back of the Foggy Rock,” said Judge Bob Burroughs. “At the present time, when it rains we have a considerable run-off and it ponds up in the area behind the houses along King’s Drive. The ponding is substantial, in my estimate in excess of two-feet. It was stated that there would be some additional run-off but it would not be consequential. Any additional run-off is going to be consequential.”

In the end, Foggy Rock’s proposal for seating was approved as submitted by the town council on the condition that the restaurant work with its neighbors regarding a vegetative opaque buffer, that a run-off calculation be submitted to address concerns about increased flooding in adjoining neighborhoods and that traffic flow of the parking lot be made one way.