Bugaboo Mountain Sports in Santa Cruz closes doors on 30 years of history

Bugaboo Mountain Sports, part of the Santa Cruz outdoor specialty retail scene for 30 years (formerly Western Mountaineering), closed its doors on Sept. 14. SNEWS caught up with owner Kai Shane, now unemployed after 23 years.
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Kai Shane, owner of Bugaboo Mountain Sports, has thrown in the towel, closing the book and doors on a Santa Cruz, Calif., store that has been a local icon since 1980. Shane finally buckled under the weight of increasing debt and inconsistent sales revenue -- a result of both the economic downturn and, she told SNEWS, an industry distribution model that encourages consumers to shop for price, even with specialty items, as they are widely available at larger chains and on the Internet.

"There aren't too many other industries where you can find products that are available at Sears also available at specialty boutique retailers, and in the outdoor industry, that makes it very hard for small, independent specialty retailers to compete," said Shane. "I don't blame the manufacturers, as they have to grow their business, but the model we have established for ourselves is not specialty retail friendly."

On Sept. 14, she locked the doors for the last time, and said goodbye to a business that had been part of her life for 23 years. She left Santa Cruz, moving with her cat, her guitar, and what few possessions she still has left, to San Francisco where, she told us, she’s now dealing with being “in the strange position of not having to go to the store for the first time in three years after working that long without a day off or a vacation.”

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Shane also had to file a personal Ch. 7 bankruptcy liquidation, which hurt she told us more because it meant so many vendors who had worked very hard with her over the last several years, were now left with a debt that would be essentially unrecoverable.

The Ch. 7 was necessary as a result of operating her store as a cash business, without the support of a bank line of credit since she acquired Bugaboo. By the time Shane began to think a line of credit might help, it made no sense to even apply because the economy was bad, banks were shy on lending, and she said, because “I’d taken on so much personal debt and our balance sheet was upside down that there was no way a bank would give me a loan anyway.”

The store began in 1980 as part of Western Mountaineering, a San Jose, Calif.-based, retail and manufacturing company founded by co-owners Gary Schaezlein and Jeff Jones.

Store manager Vicki Boriack hired Shane in 1987, fresh off an extended trip backpacking in Alaska. Shane told SNEWS® that when Boriack hired her at age 23, it was her first real job, other than summer jobs and part-time gigs along the way.

When Schaezlein and Jones decided to part ways, they sold off the retail business and Schaezlein retained ownership of the sleeping bag manufacturing side of Western Mountaineering. A Monterey, Calif.-based, company, Bugaboo Sports, purchased the Santa Cruz store in September 1989 and changed its name from Western Mountaineering to Bugaboo. On Oct. 17, 1989, downtown Santa Cruz was decimated in the Loma Prieta earthquake, but Shane, who was now the manager of the store, felt, according to Schaezlein, as if she was good enough to make a go of it.

The company, Bugaboo, struggled for a few years following the earthquake and in 1992 made the decision to shut down. Shane, who had wanted to own the store, became the sole owner of the Santa Cruz Bugaboo Mountain Sports location.

The store, which had been located upstairs and above a bar, the Blue Lagoon, no longer provided sufficient draw for Shane, we were told, in part because the downtown of Santa Cruz no longer had the traffic it once did before the earthquake, and in part because times were changing for retail in the area.

Schaezlein, who still owned the building that housed Bugaboo, told SNEWS that as more stores began to locate in the Santa Cruz area out of the downtown, and competition for the customer dollar increased, having a street-level store with walk-by traffic became essential to Shane. So, she moved the store about seven blocks away.

In 2005, Shane opened a second location, with a store called Scout that she told us was more contemporary in look and feel than Bugaboo, and entirely lifestyle driven.

“I loved Scout, as it was such a different business model,” Shane told us. “Clothing is a high-turn, low-inventory business and is much more creative and fun than the traditional outdoor store for a merchandiser. The outdoor idea of fashion is driven by two seasons, and one year the clothing is khaki, the next year beige. Nothing really changes that much, but in the apparel industry, nothing stays the same…colors, styles and more…the outdoor industry could learn a lot from this model. Customers are also more inspired to shop as a result.”

Scout was successful, Shane told us, and profitable, but not sufficiently so that it carried Bugaboo. With her lease up earlier in 2010, Shane moved Scout into the Bugaboo location and tried to operate both stores out of the same location…but it was too little too late. From a heyday of two stores and 15 employees, she was down to two employees (counting herself) when she shut the operation down.

“I closed because I had to…it was purely financial,” said Shane. “I ran out of time and money.”

When asked, Shane was unsure what she would do next. Perhaps finish her masters degree in library sciences, which she began but had to put on hold once the economy collapsed. Or, find a job doing the only thing she’s done for the last 23 years – retail. “After this experience, I do not love outdoor retail, but there are aspects of retail I do love. Or, it might be time for a complete change.”

Until she decides, Shane will spend time mentally paging through a myriad of memories while she runs and explores the coastal trails around the San Francisco Bay.

--Michael Hodgson

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