GET READY FOR A COMEBACK STORY. On Friday, Shelley and Andrew Dunbar, the Boulder couple who own the North American distribution rights for Sea to Summit, purchased the floundering outdoor shop, Neptune Mountaineering, out of bankruptcy. They will assume ownership this coming Friday, February 17.
For Boulder climbers and outdoor enthusiasts, as well the broader community of outdoor specialty retail shops, it’s cause to celebrate.
“We are excited and a little awed by the opportunity to revive this legendary store," says Shelley Dunbar. "Our first step is to get right back to Neptune's roots as a destination mountain shop with great gear from both the leading and lesser known brands to go along with the extensive staff experience and knowledge. Neptune will once again be a place for inspiration with the return of Gary’s museum and a place to dream of and plan your next adventure. We intend to carry on the tradition of being the community hub for climbers and skiers, while welcoming the visitors who journey to Boulder and visit Neptune for its history and local knowledge.”
Neptune has long been a pillar of the Boulder outdoor community. And even in recent months, with inventory so low that there were only a few sad, lonely carabiners hanging from pegs on a wall that used to proudly bear 105 different models, and big swaths of white paper covering the ample storefront windows, the community never gave up on Neptune.
In fact, despite the lack of new inventory and the paired back staff, the store has continued to host events that draw local crowds, like the one last week that featured adventure athlete and filmmaker Michael Brown.
“Neptune has always been a hub for the outdoor community in Boulder,” says Fred Knapp, who’s not only been a customer for 30 years, but also an employee in the 80s and a vendor to Neptune as the owner of Sharp End Publishing, purveyor of climbing guides. “Sometimes a store can be so much more than a store,” says Knapp. “The internet is great, but sometimes you just want face to face advice from people who not only know the gear, but know the local climate and where to send people. I hope—and I know—that Neptune can be that place again.”
A roller coaster for Neptune
In January 2013, Backwoods, an Austin, Texas-based, family-owned company that was founded just weeks before Neptune was in 1973, purchased the store from Gary Neptune. Backwoods CEO, Jennifer Mull, grew her father’s business to 10 stores, added online sales, and started sister company, Backwoods Adventures, a global adventure travel company.
At the time of her company’s acquisition of Neptune, optimism ran high. Gary Neptune was looking forward to retirement after 40 years in business, and Mull was intent on continuing to build on the powerful community that the founder had built. “We plan to maintain the atmosphere and culture of the store and continue the successes of the company’s rich history in this community,” Mull said in a statement shortly after the sale.
But it's hard to cater to the community when you're not in that community, and Mull ran the ship from afar. In what Mull calls a tumultuous time in retail; things didn’t go quite as expected either for Neptune or parent company Backwoods, which is currently for sale.
When asked to summarize what went wrong, Mull was open and humble: “Hindsight is always 20/20. Sure, I can point to this decision or that, but I think that our industry is in a lot of turmoil. It’s changed a lot, and retail has changed a lot. For a company that’s our size—too big and too small at the same time--it’s been tough to adjust quickly enough to some of those changes. It’s just been really difficult to juggle all the balls.”
Mull took on a partner in 2011. He was from the equity side with no retail experience. “We had a growth strategy, but for many reasons that growth didn’t happen to the degree that we had built infrastructure for,” says Mull. “Our rents went up, taxes increased dramatically, and we didn’t have the manpower or the resources.”
Neptune heading back to its roots
Founded in 1973 by Gary Neptune, Neptune Mountaineering has a long and storied history. Much more than just a retail store, in its heyday, Neptune’s also served as a sort of clubhouse for local climbers, who gathered there to share stories, talk trips and gear, and present slideshows to the community.
Gary Neptune, now 71, still owns what may be the best collection of climbing relics and memorabilia on the planet. Once proudly on display in the store, it’s currently stored away in boxes. The collection includes gear dating back to the 1800s, photos, news clippings, and some of Neptune’s favorite items: the down suit that Peter Habeler wore on his historic 1978 ascent of Everest (the first without bottled oxygen), a boot and crampon from Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1953 Everest climb, and the end of his friend Malcom Daly's frostbitten toe swimming in a jar of formaldehyde.
The Dunbars, who shared a celebratory dinner with Neptune on Friday night after the deal was signed, intend to bring back the museum. “It will be different, though,” says new co-owner Shelley Dunbar. “We want people to come into the store and explore. We plan to scatter different displays throughout the space, so customers will discover them as they wander around and shop.”
And that’s not all they will bring back. The Dunbars’ dream is to recreate the energy and vibe of the old days, when Neptune was the type of store that climbers congregated in. Of course, there will be a total renovation (long overdue). There will be a new bouldering wall, a robust calendar of community events ranging from slideshows to gear workshops to kids’ programs, and shelves stocked with must-have gear.
"I really hope the new owners will kickstart the Thursday night presentations, which can range from how to pack your backpack to climbing a Colorado 14er, to hosting famous climbers talking about Everest," says long-time patron and climber Jordan Campbell. "Despite there being low levels of inventory [right now], I will be patronizing the store in the days and weeks ahead just on principle. Neptune's has given a lot to Boulder, and to me."
Gary Neptune is excited for his namesake store’s next chapter. “Jen [Mull] had her heart in the right place,” he says. “But she was buried with all her other stores and she couldn’t get into this one like she should have. Shelley and Andrew are local climbers and skiers—just like me—and that will bring authenticity back to the shop.”
Neptune also points out that the Dunbars' intimacy with the vendor side of the outdoor industry, after having successfully run Sea to Summit for 19 years, will be a huge advantage for them. “They understand the back side of things,” he says. “And they’re coming into this with eyes wide open.”
The staff stoke at Neptune
Since word of the sale, spirits are high at Neptune. “There's an incredible amount of energy in the place now,” says Malcolm Daly, long-time industry veteran and founder of Great Trango Holdings who has been working part time in the store for about three years now out of pure loyalty.
“The employees are dreaming about what [Neptune] 3.0 is going to look like, customers are coming in every few days for the update, and the amount of community support for the store is nothing but humbling.”
People like Daly, who believe in the store’s local community and know what a vibrant, vital place it can be for an outdoor mecca like Boulder, just might prove to be Neptune’s greatest asset.
That, and new owners who part of that community. On Friday evening, after the Dunbars closed the deal, Andrew swung by the store to high-five his skeleton staff.
“There were only three of us working the floor and we were actually jamming hard in the rental department,” says Daly. “Without hesitating, Andrew jumped in and started helping a customer with mountaineering boots. That’s the best kind of owner we can have.”