ST. LOUIS – The region is experiencing a renaissance in outdoor retail.
In the past year, three local outdoor shops have opened within an 8-mile radius, stocking camping gear, rock climbing holds, and canoes for adventurous St. Louisans. A new chain of stores has arrived. And now two existing franchises are adding second locations.
The St. Louis area is becoming a hub for outdoor recreation, said Brad Kovach, editor of St. Louis-based Terrain Magazine. And there is still room to grow.
“The competition will generate more interest,” Kovach said. “Instead of dividing a cake into smaller pieces, they make one bigger cake.”
The rush of openings reflects a local industry struggling to keep up with rising interest and opportunities. Trails have been expanded and bike parks built in recent years. Niche activities have become mainstream. At the same time, the pandemic was beginning to push cabin-crazy couch potatoes off their sofas and into kayaks, hiking boots, or snowboards.
People also read…
And retailers thought that enthusiasts – both people revisiting their hobbies and those reviving past ones – needed gear. In November, Arkansas-based Gearhead Outfitters landed at Plaza Frontenac. REI is arriving in Town and Country in the summer, and Sunset Hills will be home to a Bass Pro Shop before the end of the year.
But the trio of independent operations that welcomed customers weeks apart in October have claimed space even among the big players here. They rely on experienced employees, curated shelves and an approachable atmosphere to gain a foothold in the growing market.
“The outdoor space can be off-putting and distant,” said Ian VanDam, the owner of Field Theory on Big Bend Boulevard in Webster Groves. “We keep it really accessible.”
He had already established a customer base through the lifestyle store he co-owns with his mother, Civil Alchemy. When a space opened up across the street, VanDam decided to expand – with a specific goal.
Field Theory lets him indulge his penchant for “no-frills, purposeful” gear that’s also “a little funkier.” The store sells everything from geodesic tents and organic toothpaste to Ansel Adams’ photo books. VanDam’s Burmese mountain dog, Rafa, serves as the official greeter.
Anna Sweeley of St. Louis County recently brought her 3-year-old son Alfie to Field Theory. After making Rafa’s acquaintance, they checked backpacks and ball caps.
Sweeley got his taste for “hardcore hiking” while living in Colorado, but thinks there’s more to Missouri than many locals realize.
“We do a lot of Castlewood. It’s in our backyard,” said Sweeley, who has two other boys. “We just have to be outside.”
Missouri’s 92 state parks saw record visitor numbers last year. Castlewood in Ballwin is known for its mountain bike friendly trails.
Elephant Rocks in Iron County has bouldering opportunities nearby, said Hannah Chancellor, director of marketing for climbing company So iLL.
Chancellor’s husband, Dan, and his brother, Dave, started the climbing products company in their barn in southern Illinois in 2006 and a few years later designed their first of two climbing gyms.
Since then, the profile of the sport has improved: in 2020, climbing made its debut at the Tokyo Olympics. According to Climbing Business Journal, an industry publication, more climbing gyms were built in the United States in 2021 than any previous year.
For months, So iLL’s 13 employees have been working to convert their offices on Marconi Avenue on the Hill in St. Louis into a climbing showroom, “a little So iLL museum,” Chancellor said, complete with harnesses and carabiners, chalk bags and crash pads. A spectrum of climbing keeps bubbles off the white pegboard walls.
“When you do something like rock climbing, it’s important to be able to touch it and feel it and ask someone a few questions,” she said.
Trying on shoes is almost a workout in itself. It can take up to an hour to experiment with the arched toe shoes, checking for tension, stiffness, and grip.
“It’s kind of a process,” Chancellor said. “We can lead people.”
Being able to try out equipment and discuss options facilitates what can be a daunting experience for clients who are new to a sport.
St. Louis native Joe Diekemper has always wanted his own canoe ever since he dipped his toe in the water on a trip with Big Muddy Adventures. When he got an unexpected bonus at work this winter, he decided it was time to buy.
Diekemper examined the streamlined selection at Big Muddy’s Guide Shop on Washington Boulevard in the Central West End and spotted a 16-foot canary yellow. Running his hand from bow to stern, he grabbed the hull and decided he could lift it onto his car himself, a non-negotiable property.
He took it home that day.
“It’s incredibly light,” says Diekemper. “It’s wonderful to handle.”
Big Muddy has hosted river expeditions such as “Full Moon Cruises” and overnight camps since 2016. But the converted auto repair shop, with a bar inside and a fire pit in the back, allows the company to connect with its mainland customers.
“We’ve always wanted to have some kind of outpost,” said owner Roo Yawitz. “We’re trying to be an urban hub for an outdoor lifestyle.”
Customers can book excursions, purchase life jackets, cast-iron cookware, or bird-watching books from the shop. Big Muddy carries a line of locally made graphic tees, Ope Outdoors, celebrating day trip destinations like Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Hawn State Park.
“We don’t sell skis,” said Yawitz. “We are very focused on the Midwest. People do really cool things here.”
Get the latest local business news delivered to your inbox for FREE weekly.