9 Things I Learned Working at a Gear Store

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A proper-fitting, breathable, fun-colored headband for snowshoeing adventures! See the end of the post for my pre-upgrade version :/ (this is also a PSA for why you should be skeptical about buying a white jacket…)

  1. You don’t really need all that stuff.
    From my perspective, gear store shoppers fall into three categories: dirtbags, stablizers, and over-the-mooners.

    I myself am a dirtbag. I am thrifty. I stretch my money and my gear as far as it will go. Duct tape for patches? You betcha. Breathable layers purchased at secondhand stores? Oooh ya. Sheets of Tyvek instead of a tent footprint? Now we’re talking (but seriously, look in my trunk).

    For my first ever backpacking trip, I went on a week-long trek in the Himalayas (humble beginnings, I know) using my dad’s 80L external frame Kelty pack that totally didn’t fit me. But it held stuff. And I got to hike to the source of the Ganges. And it was awesome. Dirtbags love the adventure, want the gear, but really can’t afford much. So they make it work. Because adventure is always worth it.

    Stablizers are at a comfy place in life. They have their beloved outdoor pursuits, but they already own most of the gear they need, so they only buy more when necessary. When they get a $10 reward in the mail, they use it to buy things like bug spray or Clif Bars. They do not fall for marketing schemes and remain tight with their purse strings.

    Over-the-mooners don’t always go on crazy adventures, but they do buy crazy amounts of stuff. They’re often new to outdoor pastimes, and they are going to drop buckets of cash before they’re sure if they even like the sport. Examples: Couple who bought $400+ in baselayers before their long weekend in Toronto (dirtbags know you only need one baselayer for, like, ever), mother who bought $400+ in Smartwool because her daughter said she was cold, and a grandfather who purchased his granddaughter $500+ worth of clothes before her first ski club outing. Will they like their adventure? Solid maybe. Will they be warm and stylish as all get out? Awww yeah.

  2. There will be days when people will want to throw Microspikes at your face.

    As a gatekeeper of both gear and cash, people will get really angry with you. They won’t follow the return policy and somehow it will be your fault. Or they will want you to endlessly rollover already-used coupons. Or they will do the math themselves and ask you to double check the computer’s math (the computer doesn’t mess up tax percentages, but thanks for checking, Rich). They will try to return a children’s North Face jacket sans receipt and be irate that you cannot accept it, and they will shake the jacket in your face and ask “But where else would I have purchased it?!?!?!” and you’ll say, “Uhhhh, The North Face store in Victor?” and your manager will nod in agreement.

    Customer service is strange because, yeah, sure, the customer is king, and we will often do backbends to make them happy. But the more I work service jobs, the more it feels like that policy is used as an excuse to treat employees like garbage. People feel entitled, and they’ll threaten to call corporate, never shop in your store again, and even blast you, personally, on Facebook if transactions don’t go their way.

  3. Customers will sometimes know more than you. That’s awesome.

    Fake it until you make it only lasts so long. For the novice outdoorsperson, general knowledge might be enough. Maybe the promise of hip pockets on their pack is enough to sell them. But some people are gearheads and they know their stuff. They see right through your bullshit, so don’t bother pretending you know which Osprey pack is the lightest off the top of your head, or Caamp vs. Black Diamond vs. Petzel carabiners. They’ll know when you’re lying.

    Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. That’s such a valuable skill for anything in life. Because as soon as you say you’re not sure what the answer is, it opens up a window to learn. I found it rewarding to grab the store iPad and look up answers online to the people’s questions to make sure I gave them accurate info. And they respected that.

  4. Profit is #1. 

    It’s in vogue now to be an ethical outdoor retailer. REI, Patagonia, PrAna, the list of companies that are trying to be more sustainable and eco-friendly is long, and what they’re doing is awesome. But don’t forget that retail companies exist to sell you things. I’m sure most of them genuinely care about their impact, but they’re also playing into a facade, trying to be ethical and aware because that’s who the consumer wants to buy from right now.

    Working for a gear store alerted me to all the behind-the-scenes stuff that isn’t glamorously eco-chic. For example, did you know every single garment in a store comes in its own plastic bag? Every. Single One. (OK, some are tied with twine; shout out to PrAna and their focus on sustainability). And many stores don’t recycle. At all. So it’s definitely ironic that you can buy a North Face t-shirt made from recycled bottles and that same shirt came in plastic that will never be recycled. See what I’m getting at?

    Resources aside, many brands and retailers don’t focus on their human impact. Where are the clothes made? Are the laborers being paid fairly? Only a handful of brands tout the sustainability and fair-trade quality to their items, so I think it’s safe to assuming that many brands are operating on a less-than-laudable basis.

    Think before you shop. Shop from places and people you want to support. Voting happens every day when you purchase items; it matters what you buy and where you buy them from.

  5. People are the best part.

    I learned so much from my customers. They offered me such different perspectives.

    For example, I always ask customers if they would like a bag. An older black woman was purchasing a fleece and when I asked her if she would like a bag, she looked at me with disdain, her eyebrows furrowed together. She chuckled, “You think I can just walk out of here without a bag? People are going to think I stole something. I’ll take a bag and a receipt.” I hadn’t thought about that because I never have to worry about being accused of stealing. That’s not a stereotype I bear.

    Another time a woman was looking for a very specific type of fanny pack and carabiner. She’d seen a YouTube video of how to make a special wheelchair pouch using those devices, and she wanted to make one for her own chair. Much to my surprise,–but not to hers–many carabiners wouldn’t fit around her wheelchair bar–the gate just didn’t open wide enough. So I grabbed a ladder, pulled down a whole bunch of carabiners, and tried them on until we found one that worked. She was so grateful. I felt bad that the carabiners were hung up on the wall out of reach, that the aisles were awkward and narrow for her chair to pass through.

    Like I said, different perspectives.

  6. You get what you pay for–but sometimes up until a point.

    If you pay $50 for a pair of hiking boots, you’re going to get $50 hiking boots. Some things just aren’t worth skimping on. My coworkers and I have our own mental lists of gear that needs to be quality, and gear that just needs to be. For instance, if you’re a climber, harnesses and shoes aren’t worth paying loads for, but hexes and cams–pieces of equipment that you literally trust your life to–are not worth buying from unknown brands. For me, boots and a good pack are backpacking essentials. Clothes? Those I can hustle up wherever.

    Without naming names, some items–or brands–are cheap because they’ll only last you a season. Do your research. Ask store members for their opinions. We’re not going to sell you garbage products if they won’t work for you, but remember that better gear costs more.

    (Best of luck to everyone who bought those $18 raincoats. May God be with you on your wet, unbreathable adventures.)

    But on the flip side, sometimes items are expensive because the manufacturer wanted them to be expensive (*~all about that $profit$~*). Questions you should ask yourself (or a staff member!): What technical qualities does this item have? Is it more expensive because it’s a sustainable company (good business practices are pricey, folks)? Is it more expensive because of the brand name? How long will it last me? How much will I use it?

  7. Becoming a member is probably worth it.

    I’m only including this because if you’re a member at many stores, they keep your transactions on file AKA YOU CAN RETURN THINGS IF YOU LOSE A RECEIPT (see point #2). It’s almost like we want to make things easy for you? But also make sure you’re not playing the system? Weird.

  8. Capitalism will sometimes make you sad.

    I feel like this explains itself

  9. You’ll be inspired.

    People are so cool and do the coolest things. I LOVED hearing about everyone’s upcoming adventures. From Antarctica to Nepal, Zion to Puerto Rico, my customers all had amazing travels ahead of them. Meeting people like that, working with like-minded people who saw the point in quitting your job and living in your car for three-months, working in a gear store was a highly inspiring and validating experience. See you in the winter, fellow gear store employees…

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    LOOK AT HOW MUCH SNOW IS STUCK TO MY HEADBAND! IT’S NOT WORKING.

    (…maybe? I’m honestly so bad at commitment. )

Almost

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Here’s a picture of a place I no longer live.

Winter is over.

Almost. Just barely. Light lingers. Ice cracks. Buds on your parents’ magnolia have emerged, green and fuzzy.

when the world is puddle-wonderful, e.e.cummings once wrote.

The world is slowly turning puddle-wonderful.

You’ve tapped into your animal nature these past two winters, your mind and body yielding to the gray winter days. Hibernation involves sweatshirts, and leggings, and at least five mugs because you can never be bothered to clean them. Your body has turned softer, the curves more rounded, the lines less firm. You try your best to find beauty in that, but it’s harder to appreciate your body when it’s not pulling you up mountains, when its most impressive use is supporting your laptop as you catch up on Queer Eye . You are gentle and forgiving with yourself (because that’s how Jonathan Van Ness would be).

when the world is mud-luscious…

You’ve tapped into your plant side this past winter, lying dormant for the season with books scattered around your mattress like fallen petals. You are biding your time in the soil, cooking more, learning more, creating more. You are waiting for the sunshine and warmer days when you can emerge and can scale walls, climb mountains, with your spindly stalks. You have so much energy. So much life. You are waiting.

For now.

You’ve tapped into your natural side this past year, connecting with the world in a primal and essential way. You sleep eight hours, sometimes nine, a night, and you’re surprised that you feel guilty for this, for the luxury of unfettered sleep. You wonder when you absorbed the belief that productivity and struggle were benchmarks of success, that being nourished and relaxed meant you weren’t doing enough. You live life slower these days, roughly at the pace of ice melting on the Genesee. This is how you want to live.

Winter is over.

Almost. Just barely. Spring is approaching and summer looms large.

The quiet months are behind you.

Almost.