Long before local residents ever sampled the seductive pleasures of big-box outdoor gear stores offering goodies for anyone who hiked, biked, camped, climbed, paddled, skied or trekked, there was Fred Gunter's shop, Exkursion Outfitters Inc.
Beginning in 1974, Mr. Gunter -- frustrated by his inability to find the right gear for his backpacking expeditions -- began ordering what he wanted and then selling the same products from a store he opened in Greensburg. Nearly 40 years of gear later, customers today can find supplies at his family's Monroeville shop for everything from a woodland wander with the kids to a high-level ascent of the Himalayas, and many adventures in between.
Trouble is, the adventures are ending for the shop at the end of this month. Mr. Gunter has decided he must close the store, even as he counts himself fortunate to have enjoyed such a long run.
"People ask me, 'When are you going to retire?' " said Mr. Gunter, 62, who plans along with his wife and two of his adult sons to continue selling equipment online, teach kayaking and rock climbing classes, and lead adventure trips for private clients. "I retired 40 years ago, when I started doing exactly what I wanted to do and have fun doing it -- it's always been a joy to be here."
For longtime customers Nick and Sherry Nystrom of Monroeville, the store was an easy drive from home. But proximity was the least of their criteria.
"We've always driven here preferentially," Mr. Nystrom, director of strategic applications for the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center at Carnegie Mellon University, told Mr. Gunter's wife and business partner, Susan, as he and his wife reminisced with her about their many years of friendship. "A, you have the right stuff. And B, we want to support you."
For other customers, however, the increasingly troublesome traffic between Monroeville and other parts of the city -- with added hassle from Squirrel Hill Tunnel restrictions -- made other outdoor equipment stores a better option, Mrs. Gunter said.
Among them, online retailers might have had the most corrosive effect, she said. Now, customers have done online research on blogs and websites, decided on the exact item they want and rarely accept variations.
In fact, many now make a beeline into the store, see if the item they have researched is in stock, and make a beeline back out if it isn't immediately available, Mrs. Gunter said.
"People were different, people would come into the shop and want to hang out and want to talk and swap stories," Mrs. Gunter said of the retail business before internet shopping became common.
"Before, we could give them our personal experience, whereas people today log onto a blog or a website -- culturally, we've changed."
In an effort to hang onto customers, the store decided to match other retailers' prices if customers brought in written proof of the competitors' price, but that policy brought its own problems.
"People will say, 'Can you match this price?' " Mrs. Gunter said. "Sure, we'll match it, but that doesn't keep the lights on."
Liability issues added further complications. The store offered one of the city's first rock-climbing walls, and Mr. Gunter would personally fit each climber with new climbing shoes by having him or her ascend the wall's multi-faceted holds.
The company's insurer, however, has deemed the 20-foot-high wall too risky to insure except at rates the Gunters can't afford, Mrs. Gunter said.
Meanwhile, Venture Outdoors, for which Mr. Gunter taught rock climbing for years, stopped offering climbing and caving classes this spring because of liability concerns.
For Mrs. Gunter, whose three sons used to fall asleep on the sleeping bag rack as little boys and began working in the store as young men, the idea of closing the shop is heartbreaking in part because the store and its employees offer a rare level of expertise.
"As a family business, we are a dying breed," she said. "Our sales reps tell us we are one of the five or six stores of our caliber left on the East Coast."
At Mr. Gunter's strong suggestion, every employee studies detailed research on the materials and attributes of the equipment so they can guide customers toward appropriate gear and answer questions about how it will perform under various conditions. Because the staff is so well-trained, the company is allowed to order from the complete lines of all the top manufacturers -- Patagonia, North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Rab, Outdoor Research, Perception, Black Diamond, Gregory and Vasque, among others -- instead of the limited lines available to "big box" stores.
And the Gunters have the skills to back up the gear. Mr. Gunter, for instance, has climbed all the major peaks in North and South America, mountains on the Canary Islands, Mont Blanc in Europe and has made several first ascents above the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island.
Mr. Gunter said he will continue teaching rock climbing and kayaking classes at local community colleges next spring and added that opening another storefront remains a possibility, under the right circumstances.
"It's really day by day right now," he said. "I'm going to keep teaching the climbing and paddling classes, but other than that, your guess is as good as mine."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719.