Build a giant wisdom tooth, soaring 65 feet high, and the crowds will line up to climb all over it which is what one of Seattle’s oldest and most famous retailers has learned.
Wrapped by mountains and sea, Seattle claims the title of America’s capital of outdoor sports. So it’s not really surprising that the sprawling sporting goods outlet opened by Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) near the city center has become a booming attraction for tourists and locals alike.
But this is a store like no other.
REI’s national flagship, which debuted a year ago, is a veritable playground for the athletic - an interactive adventureland where some customers spend the entire day in muscle-stretching pursuits. And you don’t really have to spend a penny to get in on the fun, although the company is counting on the probability you will.
Shopping for wet-weather gear? With a twist of the wrist, a salesclerk can activate a gentle rainfall in the all-glass Gore-Tex Rain Room to test the reliability of the parka that appeals to you. The water drips from aromatic evergreen boughs, so expect to get your feet wet.
Interested in a mountain bike? Test its maneuverability - and your riding skills - on the rugged Mountain Bike Test Trail, which curves and dips in a realistic loop just outside the front door. The showroom displays more than 350 bicycles.
Try on new boots at the Footwear Test Trail, a simulated mountain path ascending a rock-studded mini-summit. The climb and descent are short, but you will feel the workout in your knees.
All of these are crowd-pleasers, but the star of the store is the REI Pinnacle, billed as the world’s tallest freestanding indoor climbing platform. Perched on three rootlike legs, it rises to a blunt point. More than anything else, the structure, encased in a spacious glass box, looks like a just-extracted wisdom tooth.
From morning to night, would-be rock climbers, four at a time, pull themselves hand over hand to the top, where they get a hard-earned view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.
The Pinnacle, which is conveniently near the shop’s mountain-climbing merchandise, is aimed at first-timers tempted by the challenge of rock climbing. Typically, climbers sign up for a trial as soon as they step into the store and then wait until they are paged for their turn. Participants are put into individual safety harnesses, and each is assigned to a trained REI staffer who holds a belaying rope. If you slip, you dangle in space until you can be lowered to the floor.
Founded in 1938 as a consumer cooperative in Seattle, REI operates 47 stores nationwide. Eventually, some of the new features created for the Seattle store will be added to others. An outlet patterned after the flagship is scheduled to open in late October in Bloomington, Minn.
All of it is make-believe, of course - except, that is, the anguished grunts of the climbers struggling up the Pinnacle. Those definitely are for real.
MEMO: Seattle’s REI is at 222 Yale Ave. North, an easy walk from city center hotels. Store hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Pinnacle climb is free for REI members (lifetime membership, $15), $5 for nonmembers. To be assured of a climb, get to the store early. For more information, call (888) 873-1938.