When Vinny McClelland was in his mid 20s, he helped his father build a cabin-like shop out of wood from the local tree mill, not knowing that one day he’d be the owner of The Mountaineer. The family-owned retailer is nestled New York’s Keene Valley, an area with a year-round population of around 850.
The scant pool of potential customers can make it a challenge to maintain a steady flow of traffic in the store, but this shop has kept the lights on for more than 40 years because of its expert employees, selection of tested gear, and loyal visitors who return every season, McClelland said.
“We have good people and we live in a beautiful part of the world and we’re purveying fun stuff and everybody's working together. We’re lucky to be successful, it’s fun,” said McClellan, now 66. “I wouldn't be in the business if it wasn't.”
Ask any question about the outdoors at The Mountaineer, and it’s likely one of eight salaried employees will have the answer. The 5,000-square-foot shop is organized into sections — ski sports, rentals, books, and fishing tackle — in which the employees specialize.
McClelland is a backcountry skier and Dustin “Dusty” Ulrich, for example, is a big wall and free climber who also happens to be the social media guy and event coordinator.
“We’re all users, climbers, trail runners, skiers, and our customers love to connect on that level,” Ulrich said. “We treat our customers with a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation. It’s important to us to build lasting relationships with customers who keep coming back time and time again, year over year. You’d be shocked at the amount of people that come in here on a fairly regular basis that have been coming here since these doors opened in 1975.”
Try before you buy
It’s easier to feel confident buying a pair of boots from someone who has actually laced up that same model for their own walk in the woods, which is why McClelland’s team religiously tests each piece of gear that requires a custom fit, such as footwear, backpacks and climbing harnesses.
“When somebody comes in to buy a pair of boots, we know the characteristics of the boots, we know what kind of feet it fits, and we can do a much better job with our customers,” McClelland said. “We reach out to brands and request or react to their sales pitch. Sometimes we write an order contingent upon testing. And we only test production run items, not samples.”
The Mountaineer also offers ample opportunity for customers to try out gear through numerous demos and clinics held as part of events throughout the year. Those include fundraisers like the Adirondack trail runs and a wilderness fly fishing camps as well as the Reel Rock film tour and Mountainfest, a mountaineering festival that draws world class athletes.
Staying true to roots
Being located in a tiny town in the middle of the mountains where a number of customers are tourists rather than locals, The Mountaineer’s monetary success is based around the seasons.
There’s a noticeable lull from one to the next, which McClelland says he has come to expect and plan for in the budget after four decades. He says the down time affords him the opportunity to clean house and swap products. On busy days though, the parking lot and the store’s floor space are packed to capacity.
The Mountaineer wasn’t established on a wildly innovative or novel business model, and McClelland says he hasn’t altered his father’s vision for the store much. But he believes the simplicity in a knowledgeable staff selling quality gear to passionate people is what keeps the store alive.
Ulrich says that McClelland runs the store by the idiom, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” He adds, “We know where we stand in the industry as the little guys and we’re totally cool with that. If you try to grow too fast or jump on board with the latest and greatest thing, it never lasts and usually backfires. Our roots are important and we stick to those because we know them best.”