You may not think you’re in the market for meteorite chunks or bug vacuums. But a trip to American Science & Surplus will change that. The mom-and-pop shop, around since 1937, is paradise for curious kids, tinkerers, hobbyists, artists and bargain hunters. Colorful, engaging and more than a bit bizarre, it sells supplies, crafts, experiment kits and tons of other finds that make you want to use your imagination. With locations in Jefferson Park, west suburban Geneva and downtown Milwaukee, it’s well worth the trip.
Everything From Skeletons to Spark Plugs
Every aisle of American Science & Surplus is a journey unto itself. The merchandise is arranged by theme — arts and crafts supplies, toys, novelty items, electronics, hardware and more. From there, it’s further broken down into area of interest (it ranges from geology to animal life to botany to astronomy). If you have a curious kid that gravitates to anything and everything, start at the front of the store and wind your way through it all. If you came with a specific mission — say, buying blades to make your own wind turbine — employees will be happy to steer you in the right direction.
This is a surplus store, which means merchandise (sourced from overruns, closeouts and the like) is usually only acquired on a one-time basis. So, once something is gone, it’s gone.
Cheap Thrills, Birthday Gifts & Expert Advice
It’s hard to walk away without buying something. But the good news is you can do it on the cheap. There are hundreds of items that cost less than one dollar, and many are priced at 25 cents and under. One recent trip to the Geneva store turned up multicolored marbles, shiny silver pyrite, tiny amber glass vials, sea monkeys, plastic tigers, and even dressup goodies like tiaras and Mexican wrestling masks.
Bigger-ticket items make great birthday gifts (we love the 51-piece build-your-own T. rex for $50) and there are kits for just about every age and interest, from erector sets to snap circuits. For an even biggest investment, check out the microscopes for kids and adults, and 10 different types of telescopes, and don’t leave without saying “hello” to the life-sized human skeleton, priced at $269.
What makes this store really special is its personal touch. Nearly every item for sale is displayed with a hand-written note from store employees, explaining what the product is, why it’s cool and if there are any secret tips (aka: “bury the T. rex pieces in the sandbox before you assemble them for extra fun”). Even the selection of glue in the office supplies aisle has notes, comparing and contrasting each bottle.
Vials, Beakers & Test Tubes, Oh My …
While much of the shop appeals to your inner hobbyist, real-life scientists can make it the go-to source for everything they need. Scour the laboratory aisle for test tubes, syringes, flasks, beakers, funnels, clamps and just about anything else you need for that chemistry experiment. Half of the store stocks hard materials like cork rings, balsa wood blocks, rubber strips and tools, plus all matter of switches, wires and batteries for electronics projects. It’s no surprise that tinkerers, teachers and career DIY-ers come back frequently, looking for the missing links that will make their projects tick.
Family Science Nights
Once a month, the stores rotate to offer Science Nights. They give all ages the chance to get hands-on with professional quality telescopes and microscopes under the guidance of an expert. Together, you’ll do hair-raising experiments with electricity, fiddle with gooey slimes for the sake of chemistry, and look out at the stars.
The upcoming schedule is: May 9 in Chicago, June 6 in Geneva, July 11 in Milwaukee, August 1 in Chicago, and October 3 in Geneva. All events go from 6-10 p.m.
Plan Your Trip
Get store hours for each of the three locations by clicking here. If you live in Chicago, the Milwaukee Avenue store is your best bet. However, venturing to the Geneva store is a great day trip, especially if you stop in the charming downtown for lunch at Nosh or take a public tour of Fermilab, a nearby particle physics lab.
There’s plenty of free parking at each store and, depending on the age and interests of your kiddo, you should plan to spend at least an hour wandering around. Happy shopping!
Have you ever been to this wildly original science shop? Let us know what you think of it in the Comments!
— Kelly Aiglon