From the outside, you might not guess that Brown's Outdoor—a cozy little shop in Port Angeles, Washington, at the northern tip of the state—is one of the oldest family-owned gear retailers in the country. The vibe of the place is decidedly unpretentious, the digs modest and unassuming.
Since 1919, the Brown family has owned an operated the business, shepherding it through changes in the retail landscape and outdoor culture, responding to challenges with flexibility, good humor, and an abiding love of all things gear.
Their story is a lesson in commitment. And the legacy of the shop, which still feels nimble after all these years, is a masterclass in the value of community support—a teaching every retailer, whether deeply experienced or new to the game, should take to heart.
History of the shop
"It started off with my great grandfather, Carmen Brown. He came over here to build the dams on the Elwah River back in 1917 and 1918," said Eric Brown, great grandson of Carmen and the current co-owner of the shop.
"Carmen was a pharmacist by trade. One day, there was a big disaster involving some scaffolding on one of the dam projects. A lot of people died, and at that point my great grandfather realized he didn't want to do that kind of work anymore. He came into Port Angeles in 1919 and started Brown's Outdoor."
Back then, Eric said, the store was a pawn shop offering secondhand goods, including some outdoor gear. Carmen ran the store for 20 years, gaining a foothold in the community, before passing it off to his son, Wilson Brown.
Wilson, taking ownership as WWII reshaped the world, shifted the focus of the business to army surplus—again with an emphasis on outdoor goods. Fast-forward to the 50s: Wilson handed the shop over to his son, Larry, who made another pivot, this time in an entirely unexpected direction. Half of the store remained focused on gear, while the other half became an electronics shop selling high-end stereos and TVs. In 1999, a remodel (and dwindling sales in the electronics department) forced another reset. Everything but the camping gear—always a reliable category—was scrapped, and Brown's Outdoor became a bona fide gear shop at last.
Now, passed down yet again, the store belongs to Eric and his brother, Evan, who have kept the focus on camping, backpacking, and the outdoor essentials that have always formed the core of the business.
What sets it apart
Any family-owned shop that's survived 100 years invites an obvious question. How did they do it? What's the secret sauce that kept them going all those decades?
For Eric, it comes down to two things: relationships and hard work.
It takes a keen eye to spot the up-and-coming winners in any industry, Eric said, so the best policy is to be responsive and enthusiastic to anyone who shows an interest in you.
"Through that mentality, we've been able to form relationships with certain companies at the very beginning, businesses like Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, and Altra Footwear. We knew them from the start, and we've been able to grow with those brands, creating long-term relationships that really pay off."
That focus on relationship-building also extends to customers, Eric said. Even if you lose an immediate sale by steering a customer away from your store to help them out, the goodwill it creates is more valuable in the long run.
"All the time we tell people, 'If we don't have it, we can show you where to go get it,'" Eric said. "And that pays off. People appreciate it. We just try to build relationships with people and bank on them coming back later. That's how you create a truly loyal customer."
Then, of course, there's the simple power of grit. Continuing to put in the work, even when you don't necessarily have to, is an invaluable investment, Eric said. Brown's Outdoor is popular enough that Eric and his bother could easily step away, hand off the reins, and relax for a while.
It's an idea, though, they won't even entertain.
"The secret lies in getting up, coming to work, and running your business. We've seen it many times in the past: A business starts to have some success and the owners step away to let other people run it. That can go badly pretty quickly."
Looking to the future
One hundred years down, and many more to go, Eric said of the shop's plans for the future. To keep the business thriving, he and his brother will continue to focus on their single location. They have no plans for expansion.
"We've always had one location. There have been plenty of opportunities to expand in the Pacific Northwest. In the '80s and '90s, my dad looked into it. But there's a lot of risk involved, and we've got something that's working. Besides, we would lose some of our quality control, and we don't want to split the families up."
Eric and Evan both have school-aged children that they want to see grow up together. Expansion would mean that that couldn't happen, so long as they wanted to keep every location of Brown's Outdoor under direct family management.
"In the past, my dad had a lot of opportunity to grow, and he passed on it all," Eric said. "It was always the right choice."
How the pandemic has affected business
It's a shame to see any store close, but losing 100 years of history to the pandemic would have been doubly tragic. Luckily, Eric and Evan have been able to weather the storm.
"We did what most people did," Eric said. "We followed all the guidelines, took all the precautions. We shut down for most of April and May. We worked with all of our product reps to get different dating and pricing."
In the end, he said, it was the community spirit—the fierce loyalty of the shop's customers—that saved them. Customers bought gift cards and came back to the store as soon as it was safe. They did everything they could to help.
"It was easier for us because we're pretty small and we're all tight-knit group," said Eric. "We saw how much we meant to people. And that meant everything to us."
As we've seen with many other shops over the past several months, years of investment in outstanding customer service and a desire to truly connect with the community are invaluable business strategies. Brown's Outdoor has been laser-focused on the happiness of its patrons for 100 years. When tough times came around, those customers had more than a little support to give.
Words of wisdom
Looking back on a century in business, Eric had some very simple advice for retailers hoping to go the distance. It's not complicated, he said, but there's one principle that you absolutely must stick to.
"If you're going to build it, you have to live it. It has to be your passion, your life, everything. At the end of the day, that's the only way it can work."