It started in 1990 with some boredom, a tent and a tight budget.
At that time, John Schwartz had worked for his family’s vending machine business in St. Charles, Illinois, for about a decade. He was getting bored and looking for something new.
“I walked into a outdoors store … to buy a tent,” Schwartz said. “And when I saw the price of the tent, I had a heart attack and I walked out. The following week, I walked past the store again and there was a part-time help wanted sign in the window. And I walked in, grabbed the sign and got myself the part-time job.”
That part-time job turned into full-time career and, in 1994, brought Schwartz to Spokane working for Mountain Gear. In June, he retired after managing Spokane’s gear shop for 25 years.
He was celebrated by friends, colleagues and customers at a retirement party on June 27.
Paul Fish, the owner of Mountain Gear, said it’s a rare treat to have a manager as dedicated to the business as Schwartz.
“Having someone like John to share that responsibility with gave me the ability to work on other parts of Mountain Gear,” Fish said.
During his time at Mountain Gear, Schwartz has seen the outdoor industry change with the internet and online shopping shuttering many retail outlets, outdoor and otherwise.
“Twenty-five years ago, if you wanted a carabiner you came to a store, you didn’t order it online,” he said. “Now you can find a carabiner any one of a dozen different ways.”
The only problem with that, he said, is that customers don’t necessarily know if they’re getting the right carabiner or sometimes how to use it.
“That’s where a brick and mortar still excels,” Schwartz said.
Hiring employees who could competently help customers find the gear appropriate for their chosen outdoor activity was one of Schwartz’s primary jobs. Being a salesperson at a shop that focuses on specialty, high-performance gear is an important job with potentially high consequences. It’s a job that requires people skills and technical knowledge, he said.
“You need somebody to ask you questions that you didn’t think about before you wanted to buy something,” he said.
That’s all become harder with the internet and the proliferation of cheap outdoor gear, he said.
“Selling canoes and kayaks these days is very difficult because every hardware store in the country is selling $189 kayaks,” he said. “But is that really what you need to go out? And do what you want to do in it? And do you want something that will last 20 years or something that will last for a summer?”
In Schwartz’s opinion, not having a trained salesperson capable of dispensing advice and sharing experience ends up hurting the customer, even if it might save them some money in the short term.
Buying the cheapest gear will cost people more money in the long run, he said. Having a bad experience with low-quality gear might make the person not enjoy the activity. Even worse, it’s possible for them to get hurt if they aren’t properly equipped.
“We’re not there to hustle. If you come into a store like Mountain Gear, we want to find out what you want and what you want to do. And we’re going to explain the equipment to you,” he said.
Since retiring, Schwartz has struggled to disconnect from the job he’s had for so many years. He still talks about Mountain Gear as if he works there.
That isn’t to say he lacks his own outdoor passions, including fishing, camping and kayaking.
“I identify with what I do for a living and I’ve lost some of that identity now,” he said. “And it’s up to me to find out a way to keep it going.”
The relationships he made working at Mountain Gear remain, even if Schwartz isn’t there anymore.
“I get a perverse pleasure out of seeing where my ex-employees are,” he said. “Lawyers, doctors, raft guides … bankers. Business owners. It’s incredible.”
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