Young outdoor retailer fires up Philly to get outside

Christina Saboe of Fireside Camp Supply isn't your typical outdoor retailer, but she’s got outdoor cred and emblematic of a new wave of shop owners.
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Christina Saboe, owner of Fireside Camp Supply in Philadelphia, doesn’t look like your typical outdoor retailer. She’s young (only 29), fashionable (she’s a self-described “fancy pants”) and, well, in an industry dominated by men, she’s a she!

But with significant outdoor chops and an eye for style, Saboe’s year-and-a-half-old shop is making a name for itself — even in a decidedly un-outdoorsy city. “I stand by the fact that there are many outdoorsy people here, they’re just not very verbal about it,” she said. “They’ll find a store like this.”

Saboe is among the next generation of outdoor retailers who recognize that customers look to brick and mortar shops to provide an experience. Rather than try to compete with online monoliths on price or outdoor superstores on selection, Fireside gives customers a chance to be part of a community.

 Christina Saboe at her shop, Fireside Camp Supply, in Philadelphia.

Christina Saboe at her shop, Fireside Camp Supply, in Philadelphia.

For one thing, Saboe makes the shop a place where people want to be. Just like its owner, the store itself is different from your standard outdoor shop. Channeling Saboe’s degrees in art history and decorative arts, Fireside’s ambiance is outdoor chic. Lumberjacks, grandfathers and hipster-leaning fashionistas will all feel at home there, Saboe recounted, describing the vibe as “an old-school outfitter from 30 years ago — except that it’s a young female running it.”

Long-time campers will find the supplies they need, and those new to the sport can rent an assortment of tents, sleeping pads, stoves and lanterns. Conversely, the clothing stockpile isn’t “techy,” but rather features more fashionable pieces like plaids, sweaters and vests. Reclaimed wood gives the store a cozy, outdoor-esque feel, and a light waft of cedar is reminiscent of a campfire, even though it’s incense burning not actual logs.

“I would say the shop is two different sides,” Saboe said. “The actual legit outfitter side for campers who need fuel, lanterns and tents, and then the other half is more like a gift shop for outdoorsy people.”

Saboe also engages with the community, using monthly events to draw people into the store not necessarily to buy anything, but just to introduce them to what Fireside has to offer. Drop by the shop between 6 and 8 p.m. on the first Friday of the month and you’ll be treated to complimentary s’mores — just bring your own beer. “It’s all-across-the-board fun. At the end of the night it’s more my generation of 30 year-olds. Early in the night, there’ll be some strollers and toddlers having their first s’mores.”

On other occasions, Saboe reaches out to fellow small local business owners to join forces. To date she’s partnered with Peddler Coffee, Weckerly’s Ice Cream and Honeygrow eatery to get the word out about their respective businesses. She shares floor space with a vintage goods dealer and collaborates with a nearby gym. This summer Fireside will also be her neighborhood’s pick-up spot for the Greensgrow Farms community supported agriculture (CSA) food share.

The idea to collaborate was inspired by Saboe’s social media prowess. She noticed that other businesses had 20,000-plus followers — while she had just 1,000 — and came up with a goal: Get them to mention her name once. “It’s out of me being cheap and trying to come up with creative ways to gain awareness through social media,” she said. “It’s an advantage to being a business owner today — so much of [the marketing] is free; you just have to be a little savvy about it.”

Not that Fireside and Saboe herself haven’t met with challenges. Besides having had plenty of “very rude” people tell her that Fireside won’t make it, she’s found a need to exude a bit of machismo — like the fact that she’s been car camping since she was 2, visited her first national park, Yellowstone, at 3 and has camped all across the nation — and temper her femininity: wearing a dress to work is a rare pleasure. “I find that they won’t believe anything that I’m saying and discredit me immediately as a camper if I look too nice,” she said.

But her female-ness can also be used to her advantage. “I’m a little more friendly and sweet and they don't really know that I’m trying to sell anything to them,” she said. “I’m very feminine about that. I’m not aggressive. It’s sneaky salesmanship.

Her background in art — including having worked at Christie’s Auction House in London, the largest auction house in the world — has given her an advantage on merchandising and value assessment. “I think I’m pretty in tune with what the next big thing will be,” she said.

As for people confused by Fireside’s station in the middle of a metropolis, Saboe points to humanity’s need to breathe fresh air and experience nature. “City people need to be outdoors more than anybody. We don't want concrete all the time,” she said. “I nudge them in the right direction to getting them out there.”

--Courtney Holden

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