Pavement to paradise: An outdoor retailer's journey

Who says outdoor retail is dead? Kevin Rosenberg started Gear to Go Outfitters out of the back of his car, helping New Yorkers to get out of the city.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 5 – 8. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Photo by Hilary McHone

Photo by Hilary McHone

It was the late 1990s, and when Kevin Rosenberg looked up, all he saw were stars.

He was sleeping outdoors in the Arizona desert as part of his training with the ROTC, and for this kid from Long Island, the world beyond the cement grid of New York City was introducing itself. He liked the contrast that nature presented to life in the city, the uncontrolled rawness of it all … despite the dirt in his mouth, bugs in his socks and sunburn on his neck.

“I was born in Brooklyn,” Rosenberg said. “There wasn’t anything nearby to hike, and if you were a Boy Scout in my neighborhood, you got beat up. When we thought of nature, we thought of the park with a couple trees.”

Today, Rosenberg is trying to change those perceptions held by so many in the city. The 42-year-old used the experience he gained from years of military training and travel — he studied survival and navigation techniques with Green Berets, the Delta Force and Rangers, and flew jets, too — to start Gear to Go Outfitters, an outdoor supply store in a well-to-do section of Brooklyn called Park Slope. It’s not exactly at nature’s doorstep, and Rosenberg’s path to opening a storefront is by no means a privileged one.

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In January 2001, after Rosenberg started classes at Cardozo Law School in New York, he led the school’s outdoor club, which organized backpacking, rock climbing and kayaking excursions. That’s when he discovered how difficult it was to rent gear in the city.

“Club members were running all over in order to prepare for a simple weekend backpacking trip,” he said. It planted a seed for Gear to Go Outfitters, albeit soon interrupted by 9/11. Rosenberg re-enlisted into the military in early 2003, and was deployed to Iraq, where he hunted submarines and boarded ships in the Persian Gulf, although he never fired his gun.

“I have a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time,” he said.

When he returned, his law degree held little importance to him. “It’s one of the things I regret in life,” he said, adding that he’s still licensed in New York and New Jersey. “I knew I wanted to be outdoors and working with the outdoors.”

In 2009, he started Gear to Go in his living room, which he used to stockpile inventory and run almost every part of his young business. Due to a New York City law that allows war veterans to sell goods on the street, he turned his Honda Element into a mobile store, which opened wherever he could find a parking space. Every day, he would load up the car, find his spot, pop open the backdoor, set up a tarp and a sign, and open for business.

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“The harder I would work finding a parking space, the better I would do,” he said. “But it was still a pain in the ass.” Selling and working outdoors had its challenges, too. In 2010, Rosenberg recalls wisely packing up and heading home moments before a tornado ripped through the neighborhood.

In 2011, Rosenberg finally moved the business indoors with a more traditional ground-level storefront. At first, he lived in the store’s basement. One night, after a long day spent setting up the store, he was trying to sleep on a cot, but he kept feeling a cold draft blowing around him. It dawned on him a moment later that he was living around boxes filled with sleeping bags and survival gear. Solutions in hand, he slept much better.

 Photo by Hilary McHone.

Photo by Hilary McHone.

“I just believed in the idea. When I was a street vendor, I was freezing my ass off, and I looked back at my military experience and thought I knew nothing was going to stop me,” Rosenberg said.

Since those early days in the 225-square-foot shop, he’s expanded his services to offer a trail taxi service, which involved a ton of permitting and licensing. For a fee, he will pick you up at your doorstep, drive you to a trailhead and collect you when your adventures are completed. It’s a very New York thing to offer.

“I think the big misconception of New York is it’s not outdoorsy,” Rosenberg said. “It’s one of the most rural states in the union, except for the tip that is the city. About an hour and a half out, you’re in the country, and in five hours, you’re in the Adirondacks, which is bigger than Joshua Tree National Park.”

He has also increased his expeditions’ range to include some international trips. He recently returned from Greenland.

“My last trip is always my favorite trip, but in Greenland, you look at the map and it looms as this far-off almost exotic location, and it’s the size of Mexico with 57,000 people,” he said. “Just being there in true wilderness, at the trailhead with nobody out there to help me out — that was just an amazing experience and a new adventure.”

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Rosenberg wants Gear to Go to expand, and said he does four times the national average of sales per square foot, and grew 44 percent last year alone. He is searching for a bigger storefront in New York, and sees a day where he’s building other stores up and down the East Coast.

He recognizes the larger competition from the likes of REI and EMS. Online, he said, the big guys have purchased almost all the keyword and Google spaces, making it nearly impossible to be found. And across the city, the big boxes are a simple train ride to get to.

It’s those epiphanies that have taught him that if he is going to succeed, he has to build loyalty with his neighborhood. Hence, a recent gig at the bar with compasses.

 Photo by Hilary McHone.

Photo by Hilary McHone.

“There’s a group in New York City that does outdoor-themed happy hours, so we partnered with them last night and did an intro to compass and navigation tips,” Rosenberg said. “I think we had about 30 or so attend. It was fun watching people counting their steps while holding a beer.”

“I had a lady one day stop in the store and tell me she thought I was a genius for testing the market out of my car first before moving into this store,” he said. “I said thanks, but she didn’t know that I didn’t have a choice. It was my only option. There’s literally blood, sweat and tears, you know.”

--Ryan Slabaugh

Gear to Go Outfitters is one of 1,093 stores on the SNEWS Specialty Outdoor Retail Directory. Find it here

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