Fossil friends: Young collector, Dinosaur Gallery owner form special bond

Liam Wrona, right, visits his favorite store Dinosaur Gallery with his brothers.
Liam Wrona, right, visits his favorite store Dinosaur Gallery with his brothers. His artwork was placed in the Del Mar Village shop’s window.

Over the last few years, Del Mar 12-year-old Liam Wrona has formed a special relationship with the owner of his favorite local store, the Dinosaur Gallery. His friendship with Gladys Collins, 89, is an intergenerational bond formed through a shared fondness for fossils, art and talking dinosaurs.

“He’s an exceptional young 12-year-old,” said Collins, who has owned her store in the Del Mar Village for 23 years. “He’s a sweetheart and a wonderful young man.”

Gladys and Liam, who is autistic, first met in 2017 and since then the Wronas have made many, many visits to her store. Liam’s mother, Cynthia, said trips to the store have been an incentive for good behavior and a reward for doctor’s visits and tough days at school.

Collins always receives Liam graciously and engages in in-depth conversations about science, fossils and prehistoric creatures. “She’s so attentive to him and lets him ask thousands of questions,” Cynthia said.

She also encourages Liam to think about college and his future.

Collins said “Little Liam” is a lot of fun: “He has a huge collection of dinosaur teeth and fossils and collects gemstones and even meteorites,” she said remarking on his wonderful sense of curiosity and talent as an artist.

“We became really good friends and she’s very nice,” Liam said of Collins. He has noticed that she is very polite even when there is a grouchy person in her store.

Liam Wrona with his artwork on display at Dinosaur Gallery.

The family has rarely ventured out during the pandemic because they are at high risk for COVID-19 but they made an exception to visit the Dinosaur Gallery as a reward for Liam’s recent birthday—he had saved all of his money to spend in Collins’ shop. For the first time in a year, the two friends reconnected in person.

“It was great, she wanted to give me a hug but we couldn’t yet,” Liam said. “She’s almost like family, she’s one of my closest friends.”

Liam, a sixth-grader at The Winston School, has been obsessed with dinosaurs for as long as he can remember—he was watching the BBC documentary “Walking with Dinosaurs” when he was only four.

“Everything about them sparks my interest,” Liam said.

His first visit to the Dinosaur Gallery was during a summer vacation to Del Mar. At the time, the family lived in Massachusetts and Liam’s father worked remotely for a company in San Diego.

There was so much about the unique store on Camino Del Mar that caught his inquisitive eye.

As Collins said, there are not too many places like hers that have museum-quality fossils and semi-precious minerals for sale. She collects hers from all over the world—from Australia to France, from Morocco’s Atlas Mountain to the Green River Formation in Wyoming.

It’s a small store but she fills it up with fossils, crystals, art and jewelry.

Six months after their summer vacation visit, the Wronas moved to Del Mar and the Dinosaur Gallery was quickly Liam’s favorite place to visit. When asked what kinds of things he likes to buy in the store Liam asked: “Where do I start?”

“One thing I know for sure, she’s never made as much money in her store from a child as she has from me,” he said.

Liam loves the crystals and fossils he has picked up from Dinosaur Gallery but his favorite thing is probably a dinosaur tooth—from a carcharodontosaurus (perfectly spelled for this reporter by Liam).

In addition to being a great collector, Liam is also an accomplished paleo artist and frequently makes art for Collins. For his friend, he draws super detailed dinos.

During the lockdown last spring, Liam was worried about Gladys so the Wronas slid some mail under her door. When the family was going through the village one day, Liam was delighted to see his letter and his drawing of a raptor hanging in her front window.

Collins said Dinosaur Gallery has weathered the storm of the pandemic—she said the local community was extremely supportive during such a challenging time.

“We’ve been closed a lot because of COVID and shortened our business hours and right now we’re just getting back to regular hours,” Collins said. In addition to the unusual COVID year, the year before was also disruptive due to the streetscape improvements in the village. “We’ve had two years of upheaval but that’s ok. We’ve survived and that’s what’s important.”

As Del Mar is a tourist town she is hoping for the return of summer tourists, like Liam was once, to bring some new business.

Liam is perhaps her biggest promoter. He encourages people to visit to find treasures such as jewelry, gems, fossils, coral and seashells, clothing and art. Visitors will be able to spot about 10 of Liam’s original art pieces on display as well, those are Collins’ treasures.

“I’m just hoping to get more people to come to the store,” Liam said. “That’s what friends do.”

Dinosaur Gallery is located at 1327 Camino Del Mar right next to the Del Mar Library.