Camping World announced today its plan to purchase Erehwon Mountain Outfitter, an iconic 45-year old specialty outdoor retailer with locations in Glendale, Wisconsin, and three in the Chicago area.
Full disclosure: I worked at Erehwon as a shop kid from about 1991 to 1994, right out of college. It was my first foray into the outdoors, and thanks to the people and the culture, I was hooked for life. Erehwon was my catapult into the outdoor industry that I have come to love dearly.
Erehwon was founded in 1972 by Rudi Mayer (and Marty Stilling, Mayer owns the store now) and sells gear for all types of outdoor activities, including snow sports, climbing, camping, hiking, and paddlesports. The store considers themselves “Midwest’s number one spot for outdoor gear.”
This news will, no doubt be greeted with mixed feelings. I have them myself. On the one hand, we say goodbye to another great independent retail shop. Under the Camping World umbrella, it remains to be seen how Erehwon will evolve. And many will lament another blow to independent specialty retail as we know it.
On the other hand, those close to Mayer, now 68, are glad that he found an exit strategy, no easy task for retailers of a certain age.
“Good for Rudi,” says Jeff Weidman, currently a board member emeritus at Big City Mountaineers. Weidman’s very first post-college job was at Erehwon some 40 years ago. “The guy has worked his ass off and done things his own way for years.”
Camping World's appetite for Midwest outdoor companies seems insatiable
In October, we reported that Camping World had acquired Uncle Dan’s outfitters, another Chicago-based chain. We tried to reach Uncle Dan’s to get a sense of how that business has changed since its acquisition, but no one was willing to comment.
Marcus Lemonis, chairman of Camping World Holdings and host of the popular reality show, The Profit, has been on a tear, gobbling up Midwest outdoor companies including parts of Gander Mountain, Overton’s, a leading retailer of boating and marine accessories, TheHouse.com, an online retailer specializing in bikes, sailboards, skateboards, wakeboards, snowboards and outdoor gear.
“Our company is diligently creating segments within the outdoor space that allows for clear focus and growth,” said Marcus Lemonis in a statement. “This acquisition strengthens Camping World Holding’s efforts to build a seamless approach to the outdoor lifestyle market and further positions the company to expand the reach and product offerings of our e-commerce business.”
There is speculation that Uncle Dan’s and Erehwon will merge under the Erehwon name (nowhere, spelled backwards). This has not been confirmed.
Mayer and the current Erehwon staff are not yet able to comment on the deal because it hasn’t yet closed, but Mayer did email me saying “Overall, it’s a good thing for all involved; me, my staff, and Camping World. It’s truly a win-win-win.”
I spoke with one former colleague who has been at the company continuously since the late 70s. He is hopeful that Erehwon will continue to be the store with soul that it has always been. “We’ve had something that has worked for a long time,” he told me. “Hopefully, we will continue with it. We don’t yet know how Erehwon will fit into the big picture at Camping World, but we’re optimistic.”
Erehwon had nine stores in its hay day, and only three during its most trying times. Mayer has gone through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and many other peaks and valleys, but he fights back every time.
“Rudi is a survivor,” says Weidman. “I’m happy to see him have an exit. I hope the brand moves forward because it means a lot to me personally. It’s a family business, and Rudi always treated people like family.”
Erehwon was an incubator for the outdoor industry
A slew of other industry veterans has cut their teeth at Mayer’s Erehwon, one of the most beloved and respected heritage stores in outdoor space. I reached out to some of them to reminisce about our days at Erehwon, and to talk about what this acquisition—and others like it—mean for the industry.
Dana Gleason, founder of Dana Design, was part of the original Erehwon crew (see archival photo above). “We were just a bunch of climbing freaks living in the Midwest,” says Gleason. To get their daily fix of climbing, they put in bolted routes all over the outside and inside shop.
“It was really quite something,” says Gleason. He says that at the time Erehwon specialized in finding obscure brands that were not well marketed and developing them. “Back then there was one Kelty dealer, one North Face dealer, one Sierra Designs dealer in the Chicago area. We sought out technically good gear that no one knew about, like Mountain Master, Snow Lion, and Wilderness Experience. We started using this stuff, showing it to customers and telling stories about it. We became known as magicians who could develop interest in new brands.”
Gleason says that Mayer turned Erehwon into a real business. “He harnessed all the crazy climber energy and organized it.”
Brad Werntz of New Normal Consulting, worked there from 1986 to 1993. “Rudi was a visionary,” recalls Werntz. “He was the first to roll out a chain concept at outdoor specialty, and he drew in a lot of people in, pulling talent, creating this vision of something larger than just one little store. We were all caught up in his vision of this larger thing. When I got hired, I recruited five of my friends to join the ranks. We all hung out and worked in the stores, having fun and learning retail from Rudi. It was a tribal culture.”
Peter Sachs, general manager of LOWA Boots, worked for Mayer from 1996 to 1998. Sachs does not believe that this Erehwon acquisition is another sign that independent specialty retail is dying, but that they need to adapt. “It’s well documented that America is over retailed,” he says. “This generation of independent retailers has tried to maintain their local neighborhood business by chasing the market downstream, but many of them haven’t found ways to grow more sophisticated, and to be more profitable.”
Sachs wants independent retailers to start “boutiquing themselves” and look at cash margins rather than volume of units. “Retailers need to have the courage to drop a brand when it puts a store in their community or on amazon. Instead of saying ‘oh, that brand is really hot right now, we have to have them, find the next hot thing.”
Joe Vernachio, president of Mountain Hardwear, worked for Mayer in the mid 80s. He says it was like being part of a family where everyone was invested in the success of the company. “We were all excited to count the till at the end of the day and see if we hit the number we were supposed to hit.” Vernachio is encouraged that someone saw value in the Erehwon concept and name, and that Mayer was able to sell the business rather than just close it down.
Vernachio also believes that this does not mean another nail in the coffin for independent specialty retail. He says that when we think an existing heritage shops is starting to try to pivot, that we support them. And at the same time, we need to keep our eyes out for the new young shops.
Neither is Werntz scared about the future of retail, because he has a different vision for it, and he says consolidations like this bring that vision closer. “The cutting edge of retail involves an overlap of highly technical web-based interfaces with high-touch, concierge-based service.” (Werntz’s latest project is a kiosk that lets customers design their own down jackets.) The mid-sized store that’s been doing things the same way for 40 years is not a viable model in this environment, says Werntz. “The sooner we all get on board with that, the better we will all do.”
“This is the exit of the century,” says Weidman. “I never thought Rudi would get out. He was always too small to be big and too big to be small. I happy for him that he found a graceful way out.”
But Erehwon, as we know it, will be sorely missed by many. “So many people in this industry overlap with Erehwon. It was a conveyor belt for a lot of us,” Werntz says. “I can’t think of another shop that has had that trajectory.”