Mountain Gear, one of our industry’s premier mountain shops, will be closing its doors in the coming months. The decision to close weighs heavily on founder and owner, Paul Fish, who said that the realization that it was time was both came somewhat sudden but also a long time coming.
Mountain Gear is the second legacy outdoor shop to close in the last month. A16 announced in late November that it was shuttering its two California locations. “The math doesn’t work,” owner John mead told SNEWS at that time. “It’s just time.”
The same became true in recent weeks for Paul Fish, founder and owner of Mountain Gear.
“Reinhold Messner talked about climbing mountains by fair means,” Fish told SNEWS. That notion applies not just to climbing mountains, but life. “You should do things that you’re capable of doing in the fairest way you can do it. I realized if I wanted to complete this journey by fair means, I had to take control and finish the climb. I needed to do it now or it wouldn’t be my journey.”
Just a month ago, we interviewed Fish and his journey as one of the first specialty outdoor retailers to integrate Amazon into his business and growth strategy for an upcoming profile in The Voice. At that time, Fish did not anticipate making this difficult decision to close his shop. (The magazine will drop in mid-January 2020; look for it at the upcoming Outdoor Retailer Snow Show) “Working with your writer, Shawnté Salabert, on that story got me to thinking about the business and where it was going. We had challenges but I thought I would rise to them.”
The rise and fall of Mountain Gear
Paul Fish, 60, started sewing backpacks out of san Francisco when he was in high school. Demand for his products grew, and in 1983, tired of having customers come to his home, he opened Mountain Gear in Spokane. It quickly became the go-to place for mountaineers and climbers. He launched his website in 1994, which was essentially a digital price list of his inventory. His storied reputation as one of the country’s most legit mountain shops caught the attention of Amazon, who came calling in 2003, wanting to partner with Fish after the launch of the Amazon Marketplace.
Fish worked with Amazon to create a custom Mountain Gear shop within the Marketplace, and for many years the partnership fueled promising growth for Fish. His audience grew and so did his revenue. Fish estimates that 82 percent of all Americans who climbed Mount Everest in 2012 and 90 percent of those who climbed K2 were Mountain Gear customers. He developed a strong foothold in the outdoor e-commerce landscape.
But for Fish, who built his business on a foundation of relationships, the e-commerce business has evolved too far away from the connection with the consumer. “What [Amazon has] done really well is they’ve convinced people, both sellers and consumers, that the personal connection is less important, that automating everything obviates the need,” Fish told us in our upcoming article in The Voice. “And they’re right in a lot of cases—they’re just not right in all cases.”
Lessons learned at Mountain Gear
Fish says that in recent months “a handful of things came up that I knew I wouldn’t be able to fix. The bad problems just started outweighing the good opportunities.”
Fish had been working for some time with a potential buyer for Mountain Shop. But the negotiations weren’t progressing. “In the end, the offer was “we will take on the assets; you keep the liabilities,’” said Fish. “But that wasn’t gonna work for me. Then how do I get my vendors payed? I wanted to control my own destiny and be gracious and honorable in my exit.” That’s why he decided it was time to close his shop down.
Thirty-six employees will lose their jobs, and Fish will do everything in his power to help them find new ones.
We asked Fish if he has any regrets about the path he chose to grow Mountain Gear from a small local shop to multi-channel business. His response was laced with emotion. “I’m too close to it right now,” he said. “But I felt like I didn’t have a choice. You grow a business to a certain size, you have liabilities and assets and you have to repurpose them. I took it on as a challenge. When we started with Amazon there was a relationship, not just a system you plugged into. It’s different now.”
Fish says that mid-tier outdoor shops today are really challenged, and that most of the recent closings fall into that category. “You try to do something bigger and better, but if you don’t quite make it to the big time, you’re left in a tough spot.” Fish predicts that strong local shops with strong communities and resort shops have a good chance of staying strong.
He’s proud of the business he’s built. And with good reason.
He founded the Red Rock Rendesvous, an event that has introduced climbing to thousands of people since its inception in 2004. He built a 112,000-square-foot LEED Gold-certified corporate headquarters and distribution center in Spokane Valley. And he’s employed more than 800 people over the years, some of whom have stayed with him and many of whom have moved on to do other great things. “There’s a little bit of Mountain Gear in all of them,” Fish says.
Mountain Gear's Going-Out-of-Business Sale will start on December 27, 2109 and feature 20 to 50 percent off everything in the store.
Perhaps Fish’s most tangible accomplishment. The business he’s done. “I’ve looked at accounts payable,” he said. “Since 1996, we spent $217 million at wholesale. That means we’ve sold about a half billion dollar’s worth of product in the outdoor industry.” That’s a lot of money supporting growing outdoor brands and outfitting people to get out and have adventures.
And that will be the legacy of Mountain Gear. Fish, 60, intends to stay fully engaged. “What I love is getting people outdoors, climbing, cycling, and backpacking,” he says. “I want people to experience our natural world. I see myself doing that in a different way. I’ll volunteer more and get back engaged with Access Fund. I’m committed to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. With that I can touch 10,000 people and give them the dream of adventure.”