Retailer of the Year - Best Community Business: Neptune Mountaineering keeps close ties with its community

More than a retail store, Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colo., has become an important landmark in the world of climbing. Relics of notable climbing expeditions adorn the shop walls, while its climbing museum holds skiing and climbing equipment dating back to the 1800s. Neptune Mountaineering received the 2009 SNEWS® / Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for community outreach, partly because its owner, Gary Neptune, has dedicated his life -- and his store -- to supporting the aspirations of all types of climbers and creating a historical record of their deeds. Over the years, his store has become much more than a place to purchase gear, but also a social hub for climbers.
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Mountaineer Ed Webster lost several fingertips while climbing the Kangshung face of Everest. Well, he didn't exactly lose all of them. That is, he knows the exact location of some digits -- they reside in Neptune Mountaineering's climbing museum.

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More than a retail store, Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colo., has become an important landmark in the world of climbing. Relics of notable climbing expeditions adorn the shop walls, while its climbing museum holds skiing and climbing equipment dating back to the 1800s. And, yes, you'll even find a few fingers and toes.

Neptune Mountaineering (www.neptunemountaineering.com) received the 2009 SNEWS® / Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for community outreach, partly because its owner, Gary Neptune, has dedicated his life -- and his store -- to supporting the aspirations of all types of climbers and creating a historical record of their deeds. Over the years, his store has become much more than a place to purchase gear, but also a social hub for climbers. Often you can find some of the world's most accomplished mountaineers hanging out and sharing stories.

"You might see Pete Athens just sitting on a tailgate outside of Neptune's drinking a beer," said Mike Michaels, one of the many climbers and skiers who work at the store.

Not long after Neptune Mountaineering opened in 1973, it became a central gathering place for climbers in the Boulder area. Peter Metcalf, president and CEO of Black Diamond, told SNEWS he first visited the store in 1974 after two months of climbing in Yosemite.

"I was driving back east to New York, and routed myself via Boulder because word of this cool little climbing and boot resole shop had reached both the Gunks and Yosemite," said Metcalf. "I had to stop and meet the passionate, charismatic, barefoot climber, owner, cobbler, Gary Neptune." He said that all 500 square feet of the store was already becoming the main hangout for climbers." A few years later, I relocated to Boulder and found that Gary had moved into a bigger shop. Neptune's was clearly becoming Boulder's leading climbing specialty retailer."

Metcalf said that climbers were drawn to the store because of Gary Neptune's infectious enthusiasm. Neptune hired some of Boulder's best climbers, and to this day the store is known for its experienced staff. "The level of customer service at other places can be good, but you're not likely talking to someone who's just done a first ascent of some place in the area," said Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund in Boulder, Colo. "The people that work (at Neptune) are typically hardcore users themselves."

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Metcalf said the store has launched the careers of many members of the outdoor industry. "Neptune's has without question produced more successful, well-trained climber/ski sales reps then any other independent retailer in America," he said.

Neptune Mountaineering is perhaps best known for its weekly slide shows, which the store has hosted regularly since 1981.

"At first, we started doing slide shows of trips we had done or our friends had done," said Neptune. "If a friend went up Mount McKinley, or if we were trying to create interest in a trip we were planning, we'd have a slide show." Recalling one of the early shows, he said, "We were trying to climb Ama Dablam, and we just wanted to get people excited about it. It wasn't a fundraiser; we just wanted to get people excited about what we were doing."

These informal gatherings have now developed into must-see events that showcase the world's most notable mountaineers, such as Reinhold Messner and Sir Edmund Hillary. Most shows draw quite a crowd. "Now that we have chairs," Neptune joked, "it might be 30 to 40 people at the smallest, and up to more than 200. In the past, we've squeezed in bigger numbers than that."

The slide shows also serve to rally climbers for important causes. "One that was really special was the one Royal Robbins did to save Castleton," said Neptune. "It was a particular crisis that needed something special. The access to Castleton Tower (in Utah) was being threatened, and a bunch of climbers got together and raised a pile of money. And to this day they are still able to protect it."

Neptune said such gatherings primarily raise awareness of issues. "Most often, those events themselves don't raise a pile of money, because it's all climbers that are poor. But maybe there's somebody in there that does have some money and later contributes. The realistic part is to land the big fish, and it did manage to do that. That was a real meaningful thing."

Over the past few years, presentations at the store have brought much needed attention to the dangers of avalanches. "Some of the areas where people go into the backcountry, within two or three minutes you're in full-blown avalanche terrain," said Markus Becker, owner of Alpine World Ascents (www.aplineworldascents.com), which this year presented four avalanche awareness programs at Neptune Mountaineering. While the numbers of avalanche deaths have not necessarily increased, said Becker, "The number of close calls is up." His presentations are designed to provide rudimentary information, but just as important they let people know they should obtain some knowledge and develop skills before they go out. "If nothing else, people are at least aware that there is a real risk. The fact that Neptune hosts things like this really gets the message across. A mutual respect between the guides and Neptune makes it preferable to do the presentations there rather than some other place."

While skiing and mountaineering are Gary Neptune's passions, he makes significant contributions to the wider world of climbing. In March, Neptune Mountaineering hosted a fundraiser for the Access Fund during which John Bachar shared slides and stories from his climbs throughout the world. "It was really an opportunity to get the community together and to get to know people," said Robinson. "It was on the worst night possible, with a snowstorm, and we had a full house of people, almost 200."

Neptune Mountaineering is also the title sponsor for the Horsetooth Hang (www.horsetoothhang.net), a non-profit bouldering festival held each September in Fort Collins, Colo.

"The Hang brings together all elements of the climbing community on a single day," said Cameron Cross, primary organizer of the Horesetooth Hang and president of the Northern Colorado Climbers Coalition. "It brings a large number of people together who might not otherwise interact. There are people of all ages and all different climbing styles. It integrates a lot of cool elements of the climbing world, a competition aspect and, more importantly, a stewardship aspect. We've done a variety of projects to gain access to land that hadn't been open before. It's been kind of a launching point for the stewardship and activism we have in northern Colorado now."

Cross said that, in recent years, Neptune has really made the event possible, providing 50 percent of the cash needed to produce the event.

Certainly, Cross said he appreciates the cash, but he especially likes the fact that Gary Neptune is so quick to help out. "We call him up once a year to tell him we're putting on the Hang and ask if he'd like to be a sponsor," said Cross. "He just says, 'Sure. Let me know what you need.' We give him a rundown of our budget and what we're looking for in terms of sponsorship, and three days later his check is here."

While Neptune is generous in providing organizations financial support and a place to host events, what people like most is that he represents something that has dwindled as the outdoor market has matured. Basically, he fosters the idea that the outdoor industry is really about people having a good time together while enjoying the outdoors. Plenty of people pay lip service to this notion, but Neptune leads by example.

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"He'll go out on a Sunday ski trip and invite everybody who had wooden skis from Norway or something like that," said Michaels. "They'll call it a Woody Sunday and drink some beer." While this doesn't have anything to do with selling product, it has everything to do with developing relationships. And the strongest thing a businessperson can develop is a relationship with people who might darken the shop doors.

"Gary and Neptune Mountaineering personify the best in American specialty outdoor retailing," said Metcalf. "Neptune's is without question one of the top climbing, mountaineering and off-piste ski specialty shops in the world."

--Marcus Woolf


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