On a recent rainy Thursday afternoon, the front door of Feral Mountain Co. swung open and in walked two scruffy guys wearing backpacks stuffed with everything they’d need for a trip to Canyonlands. Hours before they set out for Utah, they stopped by the Denver store for a few last-minute items and to weigh their packs on the luggage scale in the pack room.
“You sure you want to know how much it weighs?” laughed the store’s owner, Jimmy Funkhouser, after welcoming them into the store. Beneath Funkhouser's reddish-brown beard, he wears a perma-grin and speaks with care, but doesn’t shy away from tossing in a few cuss words or controversy from time to time.
Case in point: Here's Funkhouser's take on the public lands debate.
Together, Funkhouser and one of the hikers hoisted the first bag up onto the scale’s hook. The ticker hit a few notches under 39 pounds, and the hiker groaned and said that it was probably the four liters of water.
“Water is killer,” Funkhouser quipped, before weighing the other hiker’s waterless pack at 10 pounds lighter.
From the front, Feral is modest, cozy, and home-like. The shop is housed in an old cottage on a neighborly street on Denver’s north end. Some people who have never been to Feral take their first steps inside and think it’s strictly an apparel store until they make their way through the different rooms. In one, the walls are covered with backpacks like a color-blocked collage. Another has every known map of Colorado. And the last room is stocked with sleeping bags, tents, and camping doo-dads.
In a little over two years, Feral has risen to the top of specialty outdoor retail. Funkhouser and his crew of six spunky employees have mastered the art of connecting with customers on social media, building a base of ambassadors, offering rentals and used gear, creating a rewards program akin to REI's member dividend, and curating a unique inventory of backpacking and hiking supplies for Denver-area locals and visitors.
And now, Feral has a sibling store in Idaho Springs, a small city founded by prospectors in the 1800s and located about 30 miles west of Denver along Interstate 70—the gateway to the mountains. It soft-opened a few weekends ago, but the official kickoff party was this past Saturday, complete with beer and bluegrass.
“There are more restaurant chairs in Idaho Springs than there are people living there,” Funkhouser said in talking about the city’s tourism focus. “It’s got this really cool historic vibe and it’s on the cusp of exploding. Idaho Springs 2020 is going to be a completely different town than Idaho springs 2018. I just wanted to be a part of a small town that has legitimate commercial activity and potential. If you look at Colorado, there just aren’t many mountain towns that don’t have that core outdoor gear shop. Idaho Springs hasn’t had one. I want to be that shop for 30 years.”
Antithesis of big box
On Dec. 31, 2015, Funkhouser was confronted with a question from one of his friends: What do you want to do next year? On any other day, it would’ve been a blasé query. But because it was New Years’ Eve, the question carried more weight and even though he’s not big on resolutions, Funkhouser thought long and hard on it and came up with an intimidating answer.
Funkhouser wanted to do something that scared him. So he quit his job of the last decade at Toys “R” Us to open his own business that defied the corporate culture.
“When I was with Toys “R” Us, I was leading two different lives,” Funkhouser said. “I had this very corporate, black-and-white existence and in my personal life, I was always outdoors. I was one of the few people at the company that would take a vacation and actually be unavailable. I took a lot of criticism for actually going hiking and being out in the mountains. I would have to explain to people, you literally won’t be able to get in touch with me. That blew people’s minds.”
When Funkhouser finally departed his big box job in spring 2016, the doors to Feral and his new oasis awaited. He calls jumping ship a selfish endeavor. He stocks his store with new products he finds cool—LUNA sandals, Cotopaxi apparel and bags, handmade jewelry from Taos, New Mexico, and more—and he hires people he wants to be around every day.
“I walked in for the first time and felt like I was home and that these were my people,” said Addie Levinsky, Feral’s content manager. “I never believed in dream jobs and I still don’t know what that really means, but being able to work with people that inspire you on a daily basis is unbelievably cool and I’ve never had anything like that.”
Hustling because it’s worth it
But in numerous ways, Funkhouser is selflessly giving back to his community through Feral. The shop’s mission is barebones: Create adventure. If one thing is obvious, it’s that customers connect with that, whether they’re inspired by the store’s social media or become loyal customers, or buy their own gear or rent. A typical customer story is that they found Feral on Instagram—one of their 17,000 followers and counting—and thought it was its own brand only to discover it’s a store.
Without Instagram and Facebook, Funkhouser said, “You would have no idea who we are. We’re a tiny shop in a big city. We would be buried underneath an avalanche of everything else and we probably wouldn’t be here anymore. I didn’t understand how critical that was going to be for us until it started to really click.”
Part of what drives traffic to Instagram is the shop's squad of ambassadors. They wear Feral-branded apparel out climbing, car camping, or on the trail and share photos of their adventures on social media, and then allow Feral to repost. Cherise Peterson, an ambassador who lives two minutes away from the Denver shop, said she connected with the store the first time she walked inside in 2016. She stops by whenever she needs something for a trip.
"They do things in the most professional manner while also having nothing to hide," Peterson said. "I feel a great sense of trust, openness, and community with the shop and all of the employees, and to me that’s pretty special. Their message 'create adventure' can be translated to so many people and I think it’s a message worth spreading far and wide."
The store's raw realness is especially apparent whenever Funkhouser shows his face on Instagram and Facebook live streams. Recently, he gave a virtual tour of the Idaho Springs store and a few days later, he filmed himself talking to people for a giveaway of tickets to a film. He’s seen tremendous success and he does it because it works. He calls himself the mad scientist in the lab because he’s constantly thinking of ways to entice customers to pop inside.
“The days of hanging your shingle, unlocking the door and people just showing up are over,” Funkhouser said. “You have to constantly be looking for unique ways to connect with people. Today that’s social media. It may not be social media tomorrow.”
Yet Funkhouser has been surprised by how hard he and his employees must work just to get people to walk through his doors—a challenge that he realizes all specialty retail faces.
“A lot of people have a misperception about who we are,” Funkhouser said. “It’s easy to see the 17,000 Instagram followers and think we’re a big business. We’re not. Behind the veneer of sexy website and fun social media and cute shop is just this small team of dirtbags hustling to survive. I don’t think people understand that.”
The Funkhouser touch
Believe it or not, Funkhouser is most proud of the bathroom’s decor. Sure, the toilet is functional, but the wall collage is the true masterpiece. Drawings and photographs of moose and birds and mountains are positioned among a pair of mounted antlers painted gold, a vintage first aid kit tin, a Colorado license plate, and more nick knacks. Throughout the store, noteworthy items include a rabbit fur, a crusty Kelty backpack, and his favorite—a buffalo patch he cut from the shoulder of a 1930s University of Colorado Boulder marching band uniform.
And the register counters in both shops have a backstory: Denver’s was built from the bowling lanes torn from the neighborhood bowling alley and date spot of four decades; Idaho Springs’ was made from gold-flecked wood harvested from the Argo Gold Mine down the road.
His philosophy for decorating the walls is the same as his philosophy for stocking the shelves. You won’t see one piece of used gear sitting out. Everything Feral buys used and resells is listed online, but kept in the basement along with the rental snowshoes, backpacking kits, and other equipment. He keeps the shop tidy and opens his business up to people across the globe.
“I like having a space that people can enjoy,” Funkhouser said. “The moment you put used stuff out in your store, it takes over. It looks like a garage sale.”
Soon, Funkhouser will be faced with the dilemma of choosing where to display a huge load of new inventory for summer. He’ll have no problem luring people to the store’s Facebook and Instagram feeds with photos and live videos, but the greater challenge will be getting people to buy products, support local, and return the next time they need a new backpack or hiking poles.
“We’re much better known in the outdoor industry than we are in our own neighborhood because the industry is excited about us,” Funkhouser said. “We do things the way a lot of people want to do it. It’s just harder to do things the fun way.”