Andrew Brewer likes to say that working at—and owning—Onion River Sports has been the only job he’s ever known. Now 51, Brewer joined the team prior to going away to college and returned to manage and then (in 2000) buy the shop. But nearly 18 years into his ownership, Brewer’s time at ORS could suddenly be coming to an end.
The bike and ski shop, which is known and loved as a community fixture in the close-knit Vermont capital, will be closing its doors in the coming weeks, Brewer announced on the store's Facebook page.
The decision comes as a surprise to all but shop insiders, who watched from within while ORS slowly succumbed to a downturn in sales, failed investments in online infrastructure, and a costly three-year lawsuit that, though Brewer settled, significantly set back the company’s previously successful e-commerce division.
“Some of you have heard about some specific challenges that our business has faced over the last decade, but few of you have known the full extent of those challenges and the financial tolls they have taken,” Brewer said in his Facebook post. According to him, the decline that led to this week’s decision was not sudden.
A costly legal battle
The shop’s online business, which sold only car racks, snowshoes, and cross-country ski gear on three different websites since 2003, had accounted for more than half of the business when a dispute over the sites’ ownership resulted in a drawn-out legal battle between 2012 and 2015. “That was a drain on the business and it was expensive, but we could survive that,” Brewer said in an interview.
Though ORS was still able to fulfill orders during that time, it wasn’t allowed to update or maintain the websites, Brewer said. “By the time we settled, we had these websites that were 10 years old, which is ancient in the world of e-commerce.” Nearly starting from scratch, Brewer began reinvesting in the sites, but the efforts turned out to be too late to keep the e-commerce business alive.
Expanding beyond the small town’s borders with the web business was an obviously critical component of ORS’s strategy, and when combined with a changing retail marketplace at home, the shop began to slip.
“I love Montpelier. I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Brewer says. “And I can’t think of any town, anywhere, that has as loyal and committed a customer base as we have here.”
But still, it isn’t enough. He stressed that at no point did he feel like his local customers weren’t doing enough to support the business, but acknowledged that his situation makes Onion River Sports a poster child for the “buy local” movement.
Other area specialty retailers have taken a hit through the last few years of milder winters. In the spring, Eastern Mountain Sports filed for bankruptcy and closed a large number of its store locations. Earlier this month, Vermont-based Ibex Outdoor Clothing Company laid off roughly half of its employees in what it’s calling a “major transition.”
30 minutes down highway 89, Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington is thriving.
A last minute Hail Mary?
Brewer spent the last several months working to right the ship with the hope of finding a buyer for Onion River Sports, as well as The Shoe Horn—his next door clothing and footwear store which will also be closing. Without any success and struggling to meet the shop’s payroll needs, Brewer decided to pulled the plug.
The fight took a toll, Brewer wrote: “This is clearly a financial decision for me, but after running ORS, Inc. for nearly 23 years, and struggling mightily every week for the last few months to even meet payroll, I find that I am ready emotionally as well.”
Many locals, who consider ORS a stanchion of the community, are less willing to see the shop disappear.
Brewer said he has been buoyed by the calls, texts and emails offering support or ideas for the shop, as well as just grieving. “We have people come into the store with tears in their eyes,” he said.
“Onion River Sports is so much more than just a bike and outdoor store,” said Scott Kaier, who worked for Brewer for four years. “It is a hub for all things outdoors in central Vermont and a rally point for some of the most memorable outdoor experiences that the Green Mountains have to offer,” he said, calling the shop and its employees family.
Locals, many of whom also worked at the shop at one time or another, took to Brewer’s Facebook post in an outpouring of support. “Langdon Street and all of Montpelier won't be the same without the ORS anchor on the corner,” wrote Carrie Baker Stahler. “I hope we can all come together to keep the spirit of outdoor enthusiasm alive in Montpelier—Whatever that might look like.”
Brewer does leave the door open, however small, for a last-minute Hail Mary. “I’m still hoping for a miracle here, but if Onion River is ever going to be resurrected, it’s going to be in some form different from what we have now,” he said, adding that any angel investors “had better call me quickly.”
Here’s another outdoor shop in Crested Butte, Colorado, that’s up for sale.
For the sake of continuing expenses and his employees, Brewer is hoping to quickly move through the liquidation process and close his doors for good by the end of the year.
“It’s taken me a couple months to come to terms with what’s going to happen,” Brewer said, but by now he says he’s accepting and actually becoming OK with the idea. “All good things do come to an end."