1.19.2016

Where Have All the Gear Shops Gone?

It seems like every time you open a magazine, Bozeman appears in another 'Top Ten" list. Best
college towns; best places to retire; 25 places you must visit now; the list goes on and on. Outdoor activities are a big reason Bozeman makes these lists and it is not surprising that locals and visitors alike take advantage of these amenities.  With six great mountain ranges nearby and endless opportunities for exploration, Bozeman is truly a town with outdoor recreation at its core. So one would think we'd have an abundance of stores to buy equipment for said activities. The sad reality is that gear shops, at least the ones catering to technical skiing, climbing and mountaineering, are dwindling in number.

Barrel, a small mountaineering shop on Main Street, was the first to close its doors shortly before the economic crisis.  Pro Lite Gear closed their showroom a year or two ago, and last summer Northern Lights switched its focus to boating. For some reason, Bangtail stopped selling backcountry ski gear several years ago and now focuses on Nordic skiing and phat bikes. Bummer.

While some might say it's time to drop the quaint, old fashioned notion of shopping at a brick-and-mortar store, I just can't seem to do that with some sorts of purchases. Technical gear, with it small idiosyncrasies, is one thing I like to see in person before buying.

Wilson Backcountry Sports is a "real" gear shop in Jackson Hole
The gear shop - going the way of the dodo bird
Just how warm is the down jacket? How do I replace the tail piece on my climbing skins? What is preventing my touring boot from locking into ski mode and how do I fix it in the field? These are all questions I recently had with gear I own or intended to purchase, and they were best answered at an actual store by a live person with the items in front of me. I did not want to "chat" online with a faceless person in who-knows-where nor did I want to order three jackets, see which was warmest and return the others. For me, only a real store would do.

And let's face it, when you walk into a gear shop, isn't it fun to run into folks you know, find out the latest beta on ski conditions and check out the newest equipment. Gear shops are a place where we share knowledge, connect with like-minded outdoor folks and get "stoked" for our mountainous pursuits. Many people speak highly of Free Heel & Wheel, a Nordic ski and bike shop in West Yellowstone. With stellar staff, great coffee, and comfy couches, they have created a warm and welcoming environment in their store making it a place of authenticity and community for the people who shop there. Gallatin Alpine Sports in Big Sky added an espresso bar to their store a few years ago, but not too many other shops have gotten into the atmosphere/community element of a gear store and some would say that creating this environment is important.

So where does this leave Bozeman skiers, climbers and mountaineers? While we all love the idea of supporting local businesses, how realistic is that in Bozeman ? Sure, REI, while not local or small, has a limited selection of backcountry ski and climbing gear. Their staff, often enthusiastic and eager to help, are trained in several areas so while they are good at parroting sales reps and quoting brochures, most have little experience with backcountry skiing and climbing. So yes, while you can pick up some gear there, don't expect a big selection or knowledgeable staff. I would say Bozeman's best gear shops are in Big Sky, 40 miles away. (Grizzly Outfitters and Gallatin Alpine Sports. Both have a full range of backcountry ski gear and Gallatin Alpine Sports stocks equipment for climbing and ice climbing.)
Update: I just received word that the Spire Climbing Center in Bozeman sells ice climbing and climbing gear, and they have a knowledgeable staff.
I imagine it is hard to run a gear shop in Bozeman. As is common in the service industry, I am sure hiring reliable and knowledgeable folks to staff a gear shop is a challenge. After all, what ski bum wants to be stuck inside talking about skiing when they could be out actually skiing? Somehow, other mountain towns manage to run decent stores with knowledgeable staff but this seems to elude Bozeman. One can only hope that someone with great enthusiasm and motivation (Deep pockets would also be helpful!) capitalizes on the weak technical gear market and opens a shop. If they do, they will be a local hero!