More Than Science

Nestled within Cary’s Saltbox Village Shopping Center sits Science Safari — a boutique science and nature-themed toy store offering hands-on science programs and nature adventures for students starting in pre-K through 5th grade.

The store is chock-full of science supplies, unusual and educational toys, an in-store classroom and a variety of animals, including Penelope the python and Chewbacca the chinchilla. Although there’s no doubt that the space is playful and original, the thing that really sets Science Safari apart isn’t its brick and mortar location or the furry and scaly friends who call it home — it’s the owners’ vision and passion for learning that make it truly special.

Sean and Siobhan O’Neal are two of the most committed and unique people you will ever meet. Their website, while informative, is missing certain things that are typically commonplace — an online shopping option, virtual sign-ups for classes and a contact email address. Instead, Sean and Siobhan only list their telephone number and a physical address, preferring that customers come into their store, start a conversation and sign their children up for programming in person.

“We are a brick and mortar science and nature specialty toy store, and although I realize that description is chock-full of buzzwords, we literally take it to heart,” said Sean. “We do not do any online sales, and in many ways even discourage phone sales. We require everyone to actually interact with a real person. We are trying to build a community.”

Siobhan O’Neal leads a kids’ program on lizards, “relatives of ancient creatures,” from Science Safari’s in-store classroom, where hands-on learning is a big part of the experience.

When looking for a toy, it’s easy to just go online and let Amazon do all the work for you. Just type in the age, gender, price point, and voila! You’ve successfully followed the logic tree down to the perfect gift for your child — or so you thought. At Science Safari, Sean likes to do things a little differently.

“My least favorite question is, ‘What’s the best thing for a 9-year-old?’ I don’t care what my best seller is for a 9-year-old. Tell me about your 9-year-old,” said Sean. “When people shop online, they get exactly what they want, but it might not be what they need.”

Siobhan O’Neal holds a chinchilla, one of several animals used for hands on learning.

After working in a toy store in Greensboro during high school, Sean graduated and moved on to North Carolina State University to study chemistry. During a year off, Sean headed back to Greensboro, hoping to get his old job back.

“They didn’t want to hire me because my hair was too long,” said Sean, laughing at the memory. “The owner was worried I would scare off his doll customers.”

Students are allowed to feed Science Safari’s two turtles, Bert and Ernie.

Following his break, Sean moved back to Raleigh and stumbled across a science-themed specialty toy store in Cary. Trying his luck, Sean introduced himself to Becky and Jon Blair, who had opened the store in 1990. With his chemistry background, easygoing nature — and yes, long hair — Sean was immediately hired.

“I started working for them, and it became a full-time gig,” said Sean. “The more I did chemistry, the less I wanted to do it for a career. I became their manager, and eventually, when they were ready to leave, Siobhan and I bought them out. So the shop’s been here a little over 30 years. I’ve been here 29 ½ years, and we’ve been the owners for about eight and a half.”

A leopard gecko greets participants during a hands-on science class.

The service half of Science Safari is run by Siobhan O’Neal, who received her master’s degree in entomology at N.C. State and met Sean while attending fencing club.

With their mutual love of adventure, science and the outdoors, the couple was perfectly matched from the beginning. During their engagement, Sean and Siobhan — along with their two dogs — spent six months hiking the Appalachian trail together.

The electric jellyfish lamp is just one of the unusual toys available at the store. They do not use it to teach science.

“It was our premarital counseling,” said Siobhan with a smile.

Originally from Minnesota, Siobhan has an interdisciplinary naturalist background that includes entomology and many years of science education for museums and the state parks system. A self-described “facilitator” of education, Siobhan teaches a wide range of highly interactive science classes at Science Safari, with a different theme each week.

Sean and Siobhan with Del the action figure.

“Ms. Siobhan isn’t doing the typical science experiments you might find in a classroom, like the classic vinegar and baking soda volcano or Mentos in Coke,” said Maggie Boso, a parent of a student at Science Safari. “She presents difficult scientific concepts, like genetics, to young kids in a way that they can understand and be excited about learning.”

Given their love of in-person classes and face-to-face communication, the pandemic definitely made for an interesting couple of years. Siobhan’s classes transitioned to Zoom, and at one point Sean found himself holding up toys to the window while his customers remained on the sidewalk.

Never too old to learn through play, owner Sean O’Neal bounces his way into the hearts of children at Science Safari in Cary. According to wife Siobhan, Sean’s Hawaiian shirts and playful, spontaneous nature closely resemble another action figure on display in the store – Del, from “Playmobil: The Movie” (pictured above).

“Our number of classes and kids dropped to about half, so it took a huge dent in that half of the business,” said Sean. “From the business point of view, we’re not just retail and we’re not just service — the two hands go together. Having them both work together kept us afloat.”

Despite the challenges, years of in-person interaction paid off — a majority of their core customer base continued to provide support.

Cameron Peterson, 2, finds a finger puppet he likes. The Cary store is stocked with science supplies and hard-to-find toys, like chemistry sets (pictured below).

One loyal patron, Lynn O’Brien, has been sending her children to Science Safari for over a decade. Her oldest, now in his mid-20s, amassed quite the Playmobil collection over the years thanks to Sean’s toy expertise.

“You’d be hard pressed to find another business that is as welcoming and inviting,” said O’Brien. “They are the best when you are stuck for a gift idea at making recommendations. They promote science in such a fun way through their classes and merchandise, and we are really lucky to have such a resource in our community.”

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