New York’s Evolution Store is a museum you can shop in

A hot-pink lollipop with a scorpion inside. A life-size human skeleton. A paperweight made of a butterfly suspended in resin.

No, it’s not the Museum of Natural History. It’s the Evolution Store, a science- and art-lover’s paradise in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where locals and tourists alike have been coming for 25 years to stare and simply ask questions.

In a city increasingly filled with chain stores and outposts of luxury brands, the Evolution Store is the rare family-owned small business that’s not only functioning but thriving.

Dinosaur tooth, anyone?

“We are probably best known for our framed insects,” Julianna Stevens, president of The Evolution Store, tells CNN Travel. “The classics are the bug candy, shark in a jar, taxidermied piranhas, turtle shells, alligator heads and raccoon penis bones.”

Stevens is more than the store’s president, though.

She grew up above the store (previously, it was on Spring Street in SoHo but relocated due to rising rents in the neighborhood), which was founded by her father William “Bill” Stevens in 1993. She has been working in the store in one way or another since childhood–as a kid, she wiped down counters, worked at the register and served as a “child ambassador” who checked in with other youngsters in the shop to make sure they felt welcome and included.

Though Stevens originally majored in psychology and planned to become a therapist, the call home was too loud to ignore. After taking on a “temporary” job as her dad’s assistant, she learned more about the business side of the operation and never looked back.

Many of the store’s superfans also end up becoming its employees. “When it comes to sales associates, we don’t often have to put out a call for applications. People reach out because they’re interested in working with us, and we keep their information on file,” Stevens says. Although there’s no pop quiz potential hires have to take, Stevens makes sure to give on-the-job training so that staff can answer the varied questions they might get from visitors.

“Most of the people we hire have an art or science background, so that’s what they bring to the table,” she explains. “We just hired two new part-time associates who emailed us to say they were fans of the store, and one of them is a graduate student studying entomology and the other has been a gallery assistant.”

It’s because of this familial sensibility that The Evolution Store feels more like a relative’s treasure trove of a basement than a stuffy Park Avenue boutique where the staff ignores you.

Unlike at a museum where specimens are mounted on the wall or hidden behind glass, you are welcome to come into The Evolution Store and touch things, even gross stuff like tarantulas. (“They feel like teddy bears!” says Julianna’s mom, Anne-Marie Peeters.)

“There are so few brick and mortar stores left and we differentiate ourselves by offering not just a product but an experience,” Stevens explains.

And the advent of social media has helped, too–even if customers don’t wind up buying anything, they love to share photos of the store and its products online, creating free buzz. It was particularly helpful in 2015, when the store moved into its current location in the Village and regulars were afraid the shop had closed forever–social was the way to keep customers up to date and not panicking.

The crowd is part of the show

Like any true New York City institution, the people are one of the things to gawk at in addition to the fossils, bones and meteorites.

Many set designers from TV shows and movies often come to the Evolution Store to find the prop they can’t track down anywhere else. It’s also a haven for celebrities looking for that special, one-of-a-kind gift: the late “Sopranos” actor James Gandolfini once came in looking for a very specific taxidermied fish to give as a present to a film director, and DJ Deadmau5 stopped by recently to buy a rare two-headed calf for his house.

So will The Evolution Store, true to its name, evolve? Stevens can’t predict what the future will hold, but she does have a five-year-old son with a major appreciation for all things insect.