San Jose retail icon Western Mountaineering closes doors

After 31 years as a San Jose, Calif., specialty outdoor retail fixture, Western Mountaineering is closing its doors, a victim of circumstance, changing retail climates and the local economy, according to the store's owner, Lock Miller, president of Marmot Mountain Works.
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After 31 years as a San Jose, Calif., specialty outdoor retail fixture, Western Mountaineering is closing its doors, a victim of circumstance, changing retail climates and the local economy, according to the store's owner, Lock Miller, president of Marmot Mountain Works.

Miller told SNEWS that the store would be shuttered by May following a going out of business sale. Seventeen employees will lose their jobs as a result. The community of San Jose loses too as Western served as the community meeting place for numerous clubs, including Western Water Sea Kayakers, Loma Prieta Whitewater Paddlers, Western Canoe Club, Loma Prieta Backpackers, and the Loma Prieta Peak Climbers.

Unfortunately, the staff found out that the store was closing as a result of the landlord pounding in a "For Lease" sign directly in front of the store -- appears the landlord moved just a bit quicker than Miller once the Tuesday, Feb. 4, decision not to renew the lease was made.

Miller told SNEWS, when we caught up with him this week, that he absolutely regretted the manner in which the staff found out. To his credit, Miller was on a plane from his Seattle headquarters that same day to tell the staff personally.

A dramatic increase in online shopping among South Bay customers, coupled with a local economy that is "in the pits," dramatic increases in health care and insurance costs, and plunging sales in the boat business all contributed to Miller deciding he could no longer make a go of business in the San Jose area. Miller also told us that following a store move five years ago, the customer volume never recovered.

Gary Schaezlein, owner of Western Mountain Sports, the San Jose-based manufacturer of Western Mountaineering sleeping bags and clothing, and cofounder, along with his former partner, Jeff Jones, of Western Mountaineering back in 1970, told us he was "deeply saddened" by the news, but it was not unexpected.

Schaezlein and Jones began the company while students opening their first store location in 1971. They first moved the store in 1972, and then again in 1974 to a downtown First Street location, where the store resided, along with the sleeping bag factory, until 1986. During that time, they opened a second retail location in Santa Cruz, Calif. The store moved once more to a mall location in 1986. The Santa Cruz store was sold around 1990, and now operates as Bugaboo, and is owned by a former Western Mountaineering employee, Kai Shane. Jones and Schaezlein divided the business in 1990, with Jones taking the retail portion, and Schaezlein the manufacturing. In 1992, Jones sold Western to Miller.

With the closing of Western, Miller now operates three stores: Marmot Mountain Works in Berkeley, Calif.; Marmot Mountain Works in Bellevue, Wash.; and Backpacker's Supply in Tacoma, Wash.

SNEWS View: SNEWS has a more personal take than most might imagine on this, as our co-publisher, Michael Hodgson, was Western Mountaineering's general manager in the late '80s. Shutting down Western might be a good business decision as things stand now, but it's a lousy thing for the San Jose outdoor and paddling community. While Miller cites numerous sound reasons for making the decision, we believe the primary cause for the business decline rests in the move alone. Moving the store to El Camino five years ago sounded the death knell -- and we surmised as much back then. San Jose shoppers have always avoided that area like the plague simply because it is known for difficult traffic conditions, lousy parking, even lousier store access, and it's a pain to get into and out of. We know that Miller had the chance to take the old REI building five years ago, and he should have. Our guess is that had he done so, the story we'd be writing now would be one of growth, not demise.

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