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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off belay! Mountain Gear is closing after 37 years of outfitting outdoors adventurers

Mountain Gear opened in 1983. In a month or so, it will close its doors forever. Owner Paul Fish said business has just gotten worse and worse over the past years. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A mainstay of Spokane’s outdoor scene is closing.

Mountain Gear, for decades the premier shop for technical outdoor gear, will shutter early next year, said owner and founder Paul Fish, 60.

“I’m looking at a really steady trend where online looks terrible for independent (stores) and retail looks weak and threatened,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “Nobody is telling me what to do. I’m making the choices. In another year, that’s not likely.”

The closure in early January or February will mean 36 people will lose their jobs. Fish said he will do everything he can to help them find new ones. He told employees the news Friday morning.

The decision has been brewing for years, although he only fully decided to do it in late November.

As Amazon has continued to dominate online retail, Mountain Gear’s direct sales website languished. So, Mountain Gear became a vendor on Amazon toward the end of 2003, slowly replacing “our online business with an Amazon business,” he said.

Each year it seemed the Amazon arrangement got a little worse.

“They leave less for their vendors each year,” Fish said.

While the Spokane store continued to break even, mostly, Fish realized the economics weren’t going to work.

Although he could try to scale up, that would mean abandoning his roots as a hometown gear shop, something he was not willing to do.

“We’re value driven,” he said. “Not necessarily financially driven. Becoming huge, becoming public never fit with my values.”

The closure will leave a hole in the Spokane outdoor community.

Since it opened in 1983, Mountain Gear has focused on high-quality technical gear for climbing, kayaking, backpacking and other outdoor pursuits. While other shops moved in – most notably REI – Mountain Gear’s focus on technical gear continued to set it apart. At the same time, Mountain Gear’s decision to open its first retail website in 1994 and become an early adopter of online sales kept them ahead of much of the competition.

Fish determined 82% of all Americans who climbed Mount Everest in 2012 were Mountain Gear customers, as were 90% of all Americans who climbed K2.

“If I wanted a specialized ice tool or certain types of hardware or ropes or stuff like that I’d go to Mountain Gear,” said John Roskelley, one of America’s premier high-altitude mountaineers from the 1970s through the early 1990s. “It’s a sad day for Spokane, especially for the employees.”

Like many outdoor companies at the time, the seeds of Mountain Gear were planted when Fish was in high school in the San Francisco area. That’s when he started sewing, designing and building internal-frame backpacks.

“I ended up in business, but I love working with my hands,” he said.

An avid climber, kayaker, skier and hiker himself, he first sold backpacks in Bellingham. After moving to Spokane, he started selling some gear from his home. That didn’t last long.

“It got busy enough that we got tired of people coming to our home all the time,” he said.

So, in 1983 he opened Mountain Gear on the corner of Sprague and Division. In 1989 the store moved to its current location at 2002 N. Division St.. Since the store first opened, Fish estimates he’s employed more than 800 people.

Many of those employees have become family, with all the attendant joys and tragedies and births and deaths included.

Fish also started the Red Rock Rendezvous in 2004, an annual climbing skills and training camp in Las Vegas that featured classes taught by top-tier climbing talents. Mountain Gear has hosted the Banff Film Festival in Spokane and other cities for more than 30 years.

“It’s going to be a huge adjustment for the whole community of Spokane,” said Julie Myklebust, a gear buyer for Mountain Gear. “All of our customers. There are so many folks who have been just loyal customers for decades, truly. I think there are going to be a lot of hearts broken over this. Mine included.”

The decision to close was incredibly tough, but Fish believes it’s the right one. He hopes to spend more time with his four grandchildren, teaching others to climb and volunteering. He will also continue to help organize the Banff Film Festival tour.

Mountain Gear will join a long list of retail stores – large and small – that have shut in the past decade.

Retailers have closed 15,000 stores nationwide since 2017, the Washington Post reports. According to a 2019 analysis by the investment firm UBS, some 75,000 stores will close by 2026 as online shopping continues to grow.

One company is reaping the majority of the profit from increased online sales. As of 2018, Amazon accounted for 49.1% of all online retail sales in the country.

Locally, Spokane has seen a number of retailers close their doors in recent years. Macy’s closed its downtown Spokane location in 2016, Kmart shuttered earlier this year and Sears in Spokane Valley announced in November it is closing in February.

These closures threaten the livelihoods of the roughly 1.7 million retail workers in the United States. Over the next decade, retail jobs are predicted to decline by 2%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Spokane, those titanic economic changes will manifest in various ways.

The loss of a well-respected, local gear shop is just one.

“He’s taught a lot of people how to climb and do amazing backcountry pursuits,” Myklebust said. “I think Spokane should be grateful that Mountain Gear was here. I know people will be sad, but we’re lucky. Lucky to (have) been part of it.”