Since it was published this summer, “Just Passin’ Thru” by Mountain Crossings owner Winton Porter has sold a surprising 9,000 copies, won a Georgia Author Award, and been the subject of a six-page story in the November issue of Inc. magazine (click here to read it). The book chronicles eight years of life at the Mountain Crossings store (www.mountaincrossings.com), which lies high in the mountains on the Appalachian Trail and each year serves as a Mecca for some 1,500 thru-hikers, as well as other wanderers and strange characters. We caught up with Porter and asked him to share his thoughts on why his store has succeeded and developed such a cult following.
SNEWS:In the book, and in the Inc. article, you said that at Mountain Crossings, there’s a “high tolerance for strange.” What’s the key to dealing with the eccentric thru-hikers who come into the store and making the strangeness benefit your business?
Winton Porter: Certainly, where we are, there are the hangers-on and people in life-changing episodes. That certainly opens a place for drama. Really, it’s about accepting everybody who walks in the door. You never know who’s going to walk through. You don’t know if they’re doctors, lawyers or ditch diggers. But we talk to them, and we’re in an environment where we can build relationships with people. There’s 300,000 acres in the front, 400,000 in the back and there’s no place to go.
SNEWS:There’s a real Bohemian nature to your store, with employees who take off for long periods to hike and aren’t really anchored in their lives. What’s the pro and con of this?
WP: I’ve always described the outdoor industry as a bridge to where you want to be, and where you don’t want to be. The beauty of the outdoor industry is you have some very smart people who just don’t know what they want to do in life. So, I offer a place that can be a playground for them, and then they can come to work and make some money.
SNEWS: Is it ever a problem? Do you ever find yourself short on employees because everybody’s out hiking?
WP: Generally, no. Some of my staff members have been with me a long time, and we’re able to balance our schedules. And there’s another benefit: a lot of them are on the AT hiking when they’re not here working, and that works to my advantage. They’re walking with groups that they’ve helped in the store and spreading the word about the store. Actually, sometimes you don’t want to tell people where your work, or you’re suddenly out there patching blisters or fitting backpacks.
SNEWS: Do you think the outdoor industry still embraces strangeness and has a high tolerance for it?
WP: Yeah, the industry is built on people who didn’t want to fit into a normal mold of society. That’s part of what we love about our industry. I’ve had conversations with people who have said it’s changed, but I was hearing that 10 years ago, and if it’s happened, I haven’t noticed it.
SNEWS: You’re known for doing “shakedowns” -- sorting through thru-hikers’ gear to lighten their packs. Why has that service been so successful for your store?
WP: Before they’ve hiked, people have pieced their stuff together like a puzzle, and it’s not until they get to me that they have all those decisions in their bag. And by the time they reach this point on the AT, they’ve walked 30 miles and realized they may have made some mistakes. It allows us to educate them when they already have some understanding of their gear, some intellectual assets. We’re able to take all the information and help them understand what they have done wrong and what they have done right.
SNEWS: Could other retailers benefit by finding one thing to do really well and be known for it?
WP: I think so. People aren’t just coming off the trail for a shakedown. I had a guy from Oklahoma, and a guy from Arizona come out to get outfitted. We want to create a relationship so they’ll keep coming back. And I might have to spend an hour or four hours with them, but later on, when they think about gear, they’re going to ask for my opinion.
SNEWS: During the shakedowns, you sometimes deal with customers who resist taking your advice. What’s you method in dealing with difficult customers?
WP: People come in and they’ve been beat up by the trail -- some of them are about to give up -- and the best thing we can do is get them to relax. We get them a shower and get some food in their stomach. And I also know to pair a customer with the right employee. Some people’s personalities just click better with certain people on staff.
I talk to the staff about managing the experience. I tell them about Disneyworld -- love them or hate them, Disneyworld is the best at managing the experience, and that’s because they allow their staff to make decisions at the ground level. That’s what I do; I allow the staff to make decisions to manage the experience of the customer. And if the staff does something wrong, you tell them it’s wrong. If it costs you a lot of money, then you make sure to highlight some of that stuff. But you let them make decisions.
SNEWS: It sounds like you have to deal with a lot of psychology. What are some things you’ve learned about the nature of the people who come into your store?
WP: The one thing that we are able to do is assess the individual’s personality and how comfortable they are in the outdoors, whether they’re an engineer or a doctor, have experience or no experience. We can adapt the gear to them. If someone doesn’t have a lot of experience in the outdoors, I’m not real interested in talking with the person about tarps. If someone is experienced, we might talk about the benefits of tarps. One thing I’ve noticed is the effect of the Internet. On the Internet, they get information from faceless people, and then they might go into a big-box store and assimilate the information when they shop, but a lot of that information doesn’t take into account their personality.
SNEWS: The Inc. magazine article mentions that in the past couple of years there were financial troubles at Mountain Crossings, and this was tied to your bookkeeping. But now you’re back on track. What caused the problems, and what are you doing differently now?
WP: It was just taking the eye off the ball. Operationally, I’m not great at (keeping the books). I’m a dreamer and a masochistic optimist.For me, the focus was outreach and growing the business. It’s best to identify your weaknesses and bring people in who can strengthen those, and that’s what we’ve done. We essentially had a re-organization, got a circle of smart people, and operationally, we’re clean now. I have better accountants, better bankers and people handling the books professionally. My girlfriend, Nancy, has certainly extended her gracious hand with that, and organizationally, she’s impeccable. I don’t come home without dumping receipts into the inbox every day. And every invoice is reviewed by me and her, and we scrutinize every shipping cost and every item that comes in.
How are you handling all the attention you’re now getting due to the book?
WP: I’m just trying to stay humble. Humility is a characteristic I really like in people. When someone comes into the store and asks me to sign a book, I make sure to come out from the back room to meet them. I want to shake their hand and say thanks.
For more on Winton Porter and Mountain Crossings, click here to read the November 2008 Backpacker Magazine article “The Pack Man: The Appalachian Trail Guru.”
Headshot Photo: John Johnston (www.johnjohnstonphotography.com)