Nomad Ventures in Idyllwild, California, was supposed to be a short-term, weekend gig for founder Bruce Damon. At the time, the then-26-year-old had a good, full-time job as a production manager at a local machine shop. But his passion for backpacking and paddling piqued his interest in setting up a small gear shop in 1980.
“I was thinking that maybe something would take off, but not really expecting to make it a lifelong thing,” Damon, now 64, admits almost 40 years later. “I took a leave of absence one summer on a gamble and I never went back to that machine shop.”
The shop’s first iteration was a microscopic 6-foot-by-7-foot corner of a local bookstore with a handful of packs, tents, and other backpacking equipment. Damon spent lunch breaks on the phone purchasing product to stock the corner for the weekend. “It was challenging,” he said. But within a year, Nomad Ventures moved into a 1,000-square-foot location. (A decade earlier, the space housed a different gear shop. Damon has heard tales of Yvon Chouinard doing pull-ups off the front deck in the 70s. He can also remember climbers John Long and John Bachar hanging around the same spot telling stories.) It was still a paltry amount of room, but it was all Damon needed.
It took five years to grow beyond opening only on weekends, and another year after that before Damon hired his first employee. Now, three more locations—Joshua Tree, Escondido, and Temecula—make up the Southern California outdoor gear dynasty.
There's a new climbing and outdoor gear shop in Pocatello, Idaho, that's also maximizing its small square footage. Read about it here.
Smaller is better
Nomad Ventures’ original Idyllwild shop is still in the same old house. Space is tight, but Damon says that by trading off floor space, his staff is forced to pick up some additional traits to compensate.
“Our strategy is just to follow up with a customer and try to find out what they’re looking for,” Damon said. Rather than letting the customer wonder what’s in stock, staff make an effort to be on-hand and let customers know everything on the floor isn’t everything they have.
“If we don’t have it, we’ll see if we can transfer it from another store and if we have to order it, we order it,” said Damon. “I think a lot of companies, if they don’t have it on the shelves—well—too bad. We try to make sure we can take care of people.”
Damon also utilizes a collection of nearby storage units for backstock—he keeps one style of rooftop tents, kayaks, and other large products on the floor, and sells units from storage. As shops popularize and grow, rather than moving to a larger, more suitable location and starting over, as he says, Damon stays put.
And at a store like Idyllwild with a roughly 50/50 tourist-to-local-customer breakdown, Nomad Ventures tailors their inventory slightly in the direction of the out-of-towner, who don't usually have time to wait for products. “There are certain products that people just forgot at home or they didn’t realize it would be that cold or they would need sunblock,” said Damon. Locals on the other hand, are both more knowledgeable about what's in stock and what can be ordered, and they have more flexibility to snag the product they’re after.
While Damon’s other locations are slightly larger than his original shop, he still utilizes the same systems to keep product on-hand.
Over land and rock
Even with his shops’ limited space, Damon still finds room for new categories. One surprise hit: climbing and mountaineering. Damon admits he was never much of a climber, especially early in his career, and focused his store more on tents, sleeping bags, and stoves, rather than cams, ropes, and belay devices.
But from very early on, that department took off due to the shop’s proximity to reputable climbing around Idyllwild. “I didn’t expect it to be the percentage of sales that it became,” said Damon. By hiring employees with more experience with the sport and learning as much as he could himself, Damon now boasts what he claims is one of the best-stocked climbing and mountaineering departments in the area, especially at the chain’s Joshua Tree location.
“We treat each section of climbing as its own,” said Damon. Rather than buying for one large climbing category, sprinkling in items from each climbing genre, Nomad Ventures boasts the complete kit for everything from big wall and ice climbing to sport and trad. “When you have that specific product, like a unique belay device or an obscure piece of pro, you hear, ‘Oh god, I can’t believe you guys have this,’ and that’s heartwarming,” he said.
Similarly, Damon has embraced another slightly more off-the-beaten-path category for small specialty retailers. As an owner of a Volkswagen popup camper for 20 years and with the invention of rooftop tents, Damon dove head first into the overland and vehicle-based camping categories. In roughly four years, he has stocked his stores with accessories, a wide range of roof racks, vehicle-compatible tents, and more.
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Damon attributes the category’s success to the overlap between overland and all the other activities he services. “I never wanted to go down that motorized path with my business,” he said. “I always thought it was going to be human-powered, but the people that do a lot of the other sports really cross-pollinate with overland.”
Even though he's bursting at the seams with product, Damon staffs his Idyllwild shop with one employee at a time except during the busy Pacific Crest Trail season. In the summer, the store is crowded with two employees. But it’s no worry for Damon: “We make room.”