Meet the beetles
On Alan Pedersen ’s Web site (www.grauhall.com), you can buy “really gross looking” giant water beetles for five bucks a pop, centipedes (10 for $17.10), sheep brains ($10.60—pituitary gland included!) or just the traditional “plain bat” (a bargain at $5.65). But biological specimens are merely the icky, preserved icing, if you will, on Pedersen’s holiday cake. Last year, the longtime owner of Grau-Hall Scientific Inc. sold the Elvas Avenue location from which he operated a retail facility for nearly 20 years, but he still carries on the tradition with an online offering of hydrometers, owl pellets, magnets, glassware and much, much more. The Sacramento native says he first learned the ropes of the laboratory-supply biz working for a large chemical company down in Los Angeles back in the 1970s.
What brought you back up to Sacramento?
I miss L.A., but it’s not what it used to be, and maybe it never was that. I just got to the point where I didn’t like it anymore. I wanted to be back in a place where there were forests that had trees in them and rivers that weren’t made out of concrete.
When I moved back up here, [the business] was based in my mother’s home, and it was just a telephone. I realized there was a potential for having a store where people could come and buy science supplies, so we opened a store on Elvas Avenue, and we were there for about 20 years.
And then it waned. The schools weren’t spending money on science supplies any longer, and there was a drop-off in the number of individuals buying real stuff for science projects. It comes and goes. And, unfortunately, you can’t sit around waiting for several years until it comes back into popularity again.
Your Web site includes some interesting preserved specimens. Does the market for that include people who just want to have ugly things around the house?
You know, there are some people who are interested in that, though not necessarily for around the house. There are teachers who find that they can get kids in the classroom interested in stuff if it’s really gross. I had this guy in Illinois that ordered about five things, including some giant cockroaches, and I thought I’d had some. We used to grow them, actually—giant hissing cockroaches. But I didn’t have any, and the guy that used to work for me, who’s in business for himself now, he didn’t have any either. But I knew of a Laotian food store that had these big, ugly water beetles that you could get frozen. So, I called the guy up, and I said, “Are you looking for cockroaches, or are you looking for ugly?” He says, “Oh, ugly is what I’m looking for.” So, he agreed to take the giant water bugs. I went and got some at this Laotian store. You buy them by the dozen—the guy wanted four—so, I just put them in some alcohol and shipped his on his way and kept the rest of them.
What is the best place in town for water beetles?
Well, I got it from a store that had Laotian food on Franklin Boulevard. But I was by there about three months ago, and it had closed down. [Shared moment of mourning.] Yeah, but I got my dozen, though. I won’t need more for a while. I haven’t had any orders for them since. … When I was in the store, we’d go through maybe a hundred sheep brains a year.
Wow, that’s a lot of sheep brains!
Yeah, well, people buy them like 20 or 30 at a time. I still have people around town who want things like that. And, although mostly we ship things out to other states, if somebody has been coming to me for 10 or 20 years and wants something, I’ll get it from the guy who used to work for me, and I’ll deliver it to him by hand. But I don’t want a whole bunch of preserved material lying around my house.
As an Internet entrepreneur, do you still miss the brick-and-mortar world?
I guess I’d have to say that I got too attached to horsing around in the place. You know, I’d go in the back and run the drill press or lathe and go outside and play with the fish, you know, and you get into a sloppy mode where you’re satisfied, even though business is trending downward, you’re used to it, you know? I had a guy that rented some space in the back, and he worked on robots, and he got his Ph.D. while he was working there. And it was nice to talk to him about physics. And I’d have teachers come in, and we’d get into some interesting conversations, and I liked that. I had eminent entomologists come in, and we’d talk about ants.
Now it’s all by e-mail?
Now, I talk to some people on the phone when they call up. Unfortunately, they’ll be calling up from Maryland, and I’ll talk to them for a half-hour or an hour, and it really runs up a huge bill.