Tony Sohns, a collector of rare minerals and strange creatures whose ability to spot nature’s eccentricities found an outlet in the Rock and Art Shop, a popular set of stores in the Bangor region that he co-founded with his family, died last week while on a business trip to Arizona.
Sohns, a 41-year-old Bucksport native who was known to many as “the Bug Man,” died after a heart attack, according to his obituary.
Friends and family remembered Sohns as a teacher, storyteller and adventurer with an infectious enthusiasm for natural wonders, large and small, living and dead.
Among the many curiosities that Sohns and his family have collected and kept in their stores are the cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a taxidermied ostrich, a deformed piglet with eight legs, a giant clam, an electric eel, a rat-eating plant and rocks that turn invisible when placed in water. He also had a pet emu.
As a shop owner and educator, Sohns liked to draw audiences out of their comfort zones, helping them to find wonder and respect for creatures that their guts would tell them are icky.
“I’m very much not a bug person, and Tony very much was a bug person,” said Matt Hochman, a friend of Sohns who co-owns the Trailhead Cafe in Bar Harbor. “He used to have in the shop in Bar Harbor hissing cockroaches. I would go in a lot of times and he would ask if I wanted to get up close with them, knowing how I felt about six-legged friends. He really wanted people to appreciate insects for not being pests or these terrifying multi-legged monsters. He wanted people to know that they’re beneficial.”
From an early age, Sohns collected rocks and bugs while exploring the shores of Silver Lake in Bucksport and going on yearly family camping trips to Baxter State Park, according to his obituary. While studying entomology at Oregon State University, he started Bug Mania, an educational program that he brought to Maine and continued to run.
“Sohns had a respect for all living things from the giant redwoods to the tiny gnat fly,” his family wrote in his obituary. “He had a way with words whether writing an ode to a fallen tree or comforting a friend. His sense of humor was infamous and his laugh, which was distinctive, will be missed. The only thing bigger than Tony’s love of the natural world was his heart.”
With his parents and siblings, Sohns helped start the Rock and Art Shop, a business that started in an orange building on Route 1A in Ellsworth and now consists of three stores in the downtowns of Bangor, Ellsworth and Bar Harbor.
Throughout his life, Sohns also enjoyed going on adventures, whether it was to hunt for diamonds in upstate New York or deliver a truck to a friend across the country — as he did for Travis Clough, a close friend of Sohns since they attended Bucksport High School together.
“He lived his life in such an against-the-grain kind of way,” Clough said. “Anywhere he was, he was connected to it in a way that he just knew any bug, any plant. Me and everyone in our family, we didn’t understand it: his brilliance and his fierceness for life. I could be in a bad mood, and he would remind me to look around and see where you are and find the joy.”
Clough recalled a time when they were younger and Sohns couldn’t find a tarantula that had left its cage. That experience would have been terrifying to Clough if Sohns wasn’t so familiar with the animals in his care.
“I feel like so many adventures were kind of riddled with discomfort for me, and him knowing it was safe,” Clough said. “What a hole he’s going to leave in so many people’s lives.”
Sohns is survived by his mother and father, Arlene and James Sohns; his sisters, Amanda Sohns and Annette Dodd; his brother-in-law, Chris Dodd; and his nephew, Samuel James Sohns Dodd.
A wake will be held for Sohns at Mitchell-Tweedie Funeral Home in Bucksport from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday, and his funeral service will be 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Vincent de Paul in Bucksport.