The newest outdoor shop in St. Louis, Missouri, KAMP, is doing more than just bringing cool hiking gear to the city streets. Jason and Mandi Gray, the store's owners and parents of two young boys, had two goals in mind when they opened the doors on March 7, 2018.
First off, hectic and busy schedules left them yearning to spend more time together and with their sons, and going into business together seemed like the right path.
Second, opening an outdoor store aligned with their desire to instill an appreciation and love for nature in their children as well as in people from all different backgrounds.
The Grays' sons not only inspired the business itself, but the two are also behind their goal of creating a more welcoming, diverse place for all to enjoy. Jason and Mandi, both white, adopted their African-American kids at birth. Harper is 5 and Ellison is 2.
“For them, it’s not strange to go hiking or be outside, but for a lot of people, the outdoor industry is a white industry,” Mandi Gray said. “I want to make the outdoors a safe space for all of us."
In an effort to foster more diversity, the store wants to team up with groups like Outdoor Afro, a national non-profit organization that connects African Americans with outdoor experiences. The Grays also want to reach out to low-income families to offer classes and guided walks through nature, and make a point to partner with an eclectic group of local businesses.
“We want to make sure we’re working with businesses that celebrate people of color,” Mandi Gray said.
Beyond welcoming people of color, KAMP also appeals to the next generations of adventurers. “We want to get our kids to start appreciating the outdoors young and just know it is part of life–letting them know that nature and the earth is why you’re here, and you need to care of and enjoy the planet,” Mandi Gray said.
The store’s classroom has space for KAMP yoga for kids along with KAMPFIRE stories, a bi-weekly, one-hour event when outdoor and adventure-themed stories are read aloud to kids and their parents for free. Following story time, kids are invited to create a craft.
While Mandi, 39, and Jason, 38, are eagerly jumping into their roles as outdoor store owners, it doesn’t mean they’re hanging up their talents and careers. Instead, their passions are integrated into the store.
Jason Gray’s photography skills are incorporated into the mission of KAMP. The former photography and image rights manager at the St. Louis Art Museum will teach a variety of courses right from the store, including a four-week Intro to Photography course and and an Intermediate Photography course. Quite fitting, he also offers a Nature and Landscape Photography course on how to find compositions in nature, how to prepare an outdoor photoshoot, and the history of landscape and nature photography.
Mandi Gray has a background in interior design, evident in the unique arrangement of the store. With a clean, streamlined look and items perfectly placed, the store resembles an art gallery more than a camping and hiking supplier.
The designer even joked the set up might be too perfect. “I still want people to touch our products,” she said with a laugh.
Curating a collection
The art museum vibe goes deeper than aesthetics. Rather than buying a large variety of products for the store, Mandi Gray said she thinks of stocking the shelves more as curating wanderer goods for their explorer boutique. She has decided to be more selective with what the store carries. “We’re not trying to be the next REI or Dick’s,” she said.
Instead, items are thoroughly researched, and her and Jason Gray know the products inside and out. They strive for outdoor gear that is unique and that you won’t see elsewhere in St. Louis, such as a folding Oru Kayak, Tentsile tree tents, and Fjällräven three-season sleeping bags.
“We have the stuff you can see online, but you usually won’t see in person," Mandi Gray said. "It’s different when you can see it, touch it, and see how it works live."
Besides hard-to-find items, their hope is to carry products that have dual purposes, and to work with companies that do good and value sustainability. As an example, they carry a BioLite solar-powered charger that charges as you hike and refuels devices as you go.
If a customer wants something that isn’t available, Mandi Gray said they’ll ask what they like about the product to see if something they have in the store could be a good match. She said they’d consider if the product could be a good fit for the store, and if not, they’d point the customer to where they could find it.
Whether you're seeking a unique outdoor product, a place to introduce kids to the outdoors, or a safe place for all to embrace nature, St. Louis has a new gem.
“It’s nice that people don’t need to go into the suburbs for cool outdoor gear,” Mandi Gray said. “The city needed this.”