This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
It’s a typical Thursday evening at the Southern Sun brewpub at the south end of Boulder and it is packed with people dining and drinking craft beers.
It’s a local’s joint, which means it’s a place where people often hang out after a trail run, rock climbing session, hike or bike ride, still dressed in their sweaty, dirty sport-specific get-ups. Amid the clinking of glasses, casual conversation and healthy-looking people, it oozes an oh-so-Boulder vibe — especially at the outdoor patio tables that offer a stunning view of Green Mountain, Bear Peak and the tops of the iconic Flatirons rock faces.
Soon, though, there is a noticeable energy at the retail space next door, as people show up in droves and begin to enter the Neptune Mountaineering specialty outdoor retail shop. With roots dating back to 1973, it’s long been one of the country’s legacy mountain sports shops, but it’s been through a whirlwind of change in recent years amid the tumultuous storm that has hit brick-and-mortar retail shops in the digital economy.
Three years ago, the store was at rock bottom and circling the drain in bankruptcy court. But new ownership, a major remodel and some innovative ideas have reinvigorated the shop and made it more successful than ever.
“We might have been crazy — or just foolish — but we thought we could do something to save the store and revive it,” says Shelley Dunbar, who bought the failing shop with her husband, Andrew, in 2017. “Brick-and-mortar retail is a hard game, so we knew we had to do something different.”
Founder Gary Neptune had operated and grown the business for 40 years, but when he was ready to retire in 2013, he sold it to Backwoods Retail, a Texas-based operation that owned 10 other outdoor shops. It was a time of national and local specialty retail conglomeration—about the same time Boulder Running Company sold to a subsidiary of Indianapolis-based Finish Line and only a handful years after Boulder Ski Deals was rolled up with dozens of other ski shops and sold to Vail Resorts.
Those stores were modernized and flourished under new ownership and Neptune was hopeful that Backwoods would help his store do the same. But that didn’t pan out. Things went sideways in a hurry, and by November 2016 Backwoods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. With the store owing $68,000 in back rent and a lot of money to its brand suppliers, the doors were locked and it appeared that Neptune Mountaineering would fade away.
“It was sad to see it fizzling like it was,” Neptune said one recent weekday morning in Boulder. “But tell me, how could I run it for 40 years with no money and no experience, and then a company that had all of these others stores and experience take it over and go bankrupt in four years? It still doesn’t make sense.”
Enter the Dunbars, who for 20 years had operated a wholesale company that has distributed Sea to Summit camping, backpacking and adventure travel gear to outdoor shops around the country, including Neptune Mountaineering. They bought the shop out of bankruptcy in 2017 and invested in immediate changes — including a $1 million remodel — all at a time when e-commerce was taking a huge bite out of brick-and-mortar sales.
“We knew that Amazon and all of the other online shops that sell what we sell weren’t going away. And honestly, you can’t blame a customer for wanting the convenience of buying online,” Shelley Dunbar said. “But what we knew what we needed to do was give people in the Boulder area a reason to come to Neptune Mountaineering again. Going into a retail store has to be an experience, something you’ll never get shopping online.”
Following a small but growing national trend in bike, running and outdoor shops, the Dunbars made the bold decision to open a café in the newly remodeled store to serve locally produced coffee, craft beer, sandwiches and pastries. Part of their inspiration came from Full Cycle bike shop across town, which was transformed a few years earlier with a café, bar and flat screen TVs to watch cycling events.
“Coffee has a way of creating community, and the trend of having cafés in shops like that is about giving core customers a place to come in and hang out and feel comfortable as well as new customers a reason to come in,” Kurt Hans, founder and CEO of Boulder-based Ampersand Coffee Roasters, who helped both stores get their café operations off the ground. “It’s great to see Neptune so full of energy again, because it’s a real Boulder landmark.”
The Dunbars also expanded Neptune’s gear and apparel offerings to broaden the store’s customer appeal — including adding new categories like pack rafting and bike packing — without reducing its foothold in climbing, mountaineering, camping and backcountry and Nordic skiing. They also invited the Colorado Mountain School guide service into the store and expanded the scope and schedule of the store’s weeknight events. Just as important, they tried to keep as many of the stores employees, many of whom had worked for the store before it sold the first time.
Despite a dark time for brick-and-mortar specialty retailing, the Dunbars have turned the store around surprisingly quickly.
In a nutshell, what they’ve done is smartly blend the old-school authenticity and gear selection the store has always fostered while taking some risks with new features and working hard to re-engage with the community, both long-term customers and new ones amid Boulder’s growing population.
“Without putting numbers behind it, I will say that the store is doing very well and is selling more gear than it ever has before,” Andrew Dunbar says. “And that’s largely because the customer traffic has probably tripled from when we first took it over. But it’s not just about selling gear. I think, with the café and the events, what we’ve done is create a hub for people to come in and share knowledge and passion or just their outdoor experiences.”
There’s no better indicator of the Dunbar’s initial success than the crowd that’s been gather for the store’s Thursday night events. While the store had done Thursday night events for years, most typically drew between 30 to 50 people. In the past year, the store events — which are often held on Tuesday and Wednesday nights — typically attract 150 to 200 people. Recent topics have included climbing in Eldorado Canyon, trail running Colorado’s 14ers, canyoneering in Mexico, hiking along California’s John Muir Trail, the rise of “voluntourism” travel and, most recently, the popular trend of van life.
“I go to these events a couple of times per month,” says Boulder’s Jim Anderson. “It’s my become my favorite store in Boulder, and I am not a climber and almost never go camping. I just like the shows, having a beer and hanging out here.”
In August, Neptune Mountaineering will unveil Neptune LAB, a new experiential section of the store dedicated to new gear curated from crowd-funded startups. The Aug. 7 launch will include a happy hour and panel discussion with the entrepreneurs behind several new products.
“We want to continually inspire our customers with something new,” Shelley Dunbar says. “You have offer customers something different all the time, even from what you did the previous week if you want to compete with online shops, which are changing all the time. We think Neptune LAB is another way to do that.”
As for Gary Neptune, he couldn’t be more thrilled about the store’s revival. At 73, he still skis a lot and climbs a little. He refused the opportunity to be put on retainer, but he still visits the shop several days a week to chit-chat with employees, keep up on the climbing scene, help out where he can and tend to his renowned personal climbing gear museum.
In the store’s darkest hour in 2016, he could be seen hurriedly removing the thousands of artifacts from his collection, including the frostbitten toe of his climber pal Malcolm Daly, and put them in his garage. When the remodel was executed, the Dunbars not only made room for the museum, but made sure Neptune would display it as he saw fit. The gear is displayed prominently on the walls, in special glass cases adjacent to merchandise and under the glass top of the large community table in the café.
“It was a disaster and I feel sorry for all of the people who got stiffed, but, hey, I got stiffed too, and I’ll never get that money,” Neptune says after putting the finishing touches on a display of historic ice axes. “But yeah, it’s really great to see the store thriving again.”