Business Communities Outdoors

The Compleat Naturalist: Time to Go Birding

By Laura Mahan

I have decided that it is time to retire! The average small business lasts for about four years. Our small retail store in Historic Biltmore Village has been open in the same location now for 30 years, thanks to the support not only of Asheville and Western North Carolina customers but also from the wonderful visitors to our area who come here to enjoy the mountains and natural beauty. That is why we decided to start our business here.

I still remember the day: June 26, 1992, at 3 p.m. That was when we felt ready enough to unlock the door and turn our sign to OPEN. My late husband, Hal, and I called it the great adventure when we left our careers as natural history museum professionals and decided to open our own store focused on nature study and outdoor-related supplies and gifts. It has always been a labor of love.

We aimed to prove that you can combine a successful retail business with science education. It actually helped that we had no experience in retail. A business professional likely would have thought that we’d never succeed. But we knew that Asheville was the perfect place for a store that focused on nature and learning about the natural world because here we are lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape and biologically diverse natural communities in North America.

What better way to gently teach unsuspecting customers that a naturalist is a person who studies Nature, and not one who is an expert in vitamins, herbs and natural food? We quickly discovered that an amazingly large percentage of our customers did not know this, and we did our best to fascinate them with views of a colorful insect through a stereo microscope or by talking about the currently blooming wildflowers and trees. We hope they left with not only a science gift for a grandchild but a new appreciation for how fun it is to notice and appreciate nature.

Sometimes it even changes lives. In my career as a museum educator and here in the store, I have met a great number of people who have become professional scientists. I have made a point of asking how their interest in science began, and overwhelmingly a fascination with some aspect of nature at a young age played a huge role. Usually this does not happen at school, but outdoors, sometimes with a mentor who leads them to that spark moment when they say “wow” and their life changes forever. Nature study is often the gateway to a science career.

I will miss running The Compleat Naturalist. It is a joy to meet and hear the stories of fascinating people every day. But I fully intend to continue to encourage nature study by volunteering for and supporting organizations like The North Carolina Arboretum where folks at any age can have that “wow” moment in nature.

The Compleat Naturalist will be open until the end of June. Then, I’ll see you on the trails! Also, keep looking for copies of The Laurel of Asheville as you may still see my nature articles occasionally.

Laura Mahan is owner of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 800.678.5430.

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