Russell “Holly” Hollenbeck doesn’t quite understand why people need motivation to enjoy nature.
“I can’t hardly remember a time when I didn’t want to get outdoors,” Holly Hollenbeck (photo, right, with wife Lisa Hollenbeck) told SNEWS. “No one had to recruit me. I started backpacking in my early teens and went by myself, and I read everything in the library about the Great North Woods and Alaska and all those wonderful places in the mountains and woods.”
Subsequently he became something of a mountaineer, enlisting his younger brother to head out on adventures with him and eventually opening the Alpine Shop, which has done such a good job of encouraging people to get outdoors that it won this year’s SNEWS-Backpacker Retailer of the Year for Growth of Outdoor Sports.
Getting people out
Todd Oswald, the Alpine Shop’s marketing director, is concerned by the idea of Nature Deficit Disorder and children who spend all their time inside.
When Holly Hollenbeck bought the store in April 1978, he made it part of his mission to share his and his staff's passion with customers.
Oswald said that’s why the store established numerous programs to get children and adults interested in learning new things.
“We put a lot of effort into our programs, our clinics and our events — that all has to do with the growth in outdoor sports,” Oswald said. “It’s not just a goal that our company deals with, it’s part of the company’s vision.”
The company offers many educational opportunities and community gatherings, such as its weekly Breakfast Club bicycle ride, which takes place every Saturday at 8:30 a.m. at the store’s Kirkwood location. Plus, it offers workshops on everything from kayaking to ski and snowboard tuning, from backpacking basics to bear safety 101.
It’s not just about giving customers the chance to cement skills necessary for a safe outdoor experience — things like outdoor photography are on the menu, too. To get a feel for how many courses the store sponsors and hosts, click here.
“We believe when people get outside and get active and experience the outdoors, it brings about physical, emotional and spiritual changes,” Oswald said. “Getting people outdoors truly a part of everything that we do as a company.”
Back in the early 1970s, the shop was called Moore’s, as in former owner Bob Moore.
“Bob was a climber and he worked for the Army map agency here in St. Louis,” Hollenbeck explained. “There was a climbing shop in town, but Bob felt they didn’t really know what they were doing.”
So he opened up a franchise of Chouinard, a Patagonia predecessor, and a wine-making shop. Pretty soon, Hollenbeck said, the climbing and outdoor gear was doing better than the wine, so Moore started to focus on that. He started stocking shelves with more than just climbing gear — adding backpacks, camping gear and later some canoes.
When Hollenbeck got wind that Moore was putting his shop up for sale, he jumped on the opportunity. He didn’t have much percolating on the job front after leaving a position in finance, due to a conflict of interest with new management. He got the deal going while on Christmas vacation with his family and by April 1978, the store was his.
Soon, Hollenbeck added items like alpine ski equipment, and then bicycles to keep the business going strong throughout the summer. In the late 1970s and early '80s, few outdoor suppliers were producing apparel, Hollenbeck said, so he ventured beyond the industry to find clothing for the store.
“Now, as you know, everybody in the industry does clothing,” Hollenbeck said. His wife and co-owner Lisa Hollenbeck sought out women’s-specific outerwear and apparel, and said she thinks her inquiries to suppliers might have helped the trend take off.
“There was kind of a perception by the industry that women wouldn’t pay for it so it didn’t make sense to develop women’s stuff,” Lisa Hollenbeck said.
No matter what the store stocked, it couldn’t escape from the turmoil that engulfed it during Holly Hollenbeck’s divorce from his first wife.
“When I got divorced and I had to borrow money against the ownership in the building and we were in a negative net worth position,” Holly Hollenbeck said. “That was just overcome through keeping our nose to the grindstone.”
Another critical challenge came when when REI opened a store in the neighborhood in 2001.
“We were down 17 percent,” Holly Hollenbeck said. “We just kept at it. Within a few years we were back where we had been before REI came into town and continued to grow.”
He added that he made sure to keep his store well stocked so he’d never have to send customers to REI for anything.
Through it all, the Alpine Shop remained committed to creating a community that encourages outdoor participation. Manager Rich Huskey said what makes the store so successful is its commitment to people, both staff and customers.
“We have great people,” Huskey said. “People that have done anything you can think of. They are truly experts in the things that they do — they’ve been mountain guides in Alaska and things like that.”
This helps customers connect to the knowledgable staff, Huskey said. “What we stand for, it adds quite a bit of validity,” Huskey said. “Customers are able to get instruction from someone like that.”
For Holly Hollenbeck, though offering these clinics hasn’t perceptibly boosted sales, it’s increased the number of people coming through the doors who will think of the Alpine Shop when they need to make a purchase and maybe get interested in doing fun stuff outside.
“The reality is that today’s kids are spending an awful lot of time indoors messing with machines and electronics,” Holly Hollenbeck said, “and we realized we really do need to help introduce people to the outdoors.”