There’s a lot of bustle in the Neptune Mountaineering café where Erin Johnson, the shop’s general manager, and I are talking. Two customers are chatting over coffee and a map. Outdoor Retailer’s gear editor, Cameron Martindell, who also works at Neptune, is popping back and forth between our conversation and the pack department. The barista, whom I just engaged in a conversation about classic Star Trek episodes, hands me an Americano. Someone is testing shoes on the nearby climbing wall.
Neptune is always like this—active—and that’s a blessing considering the store had fallen on hard times just five years ago and is located in the same shopping center as the King Soopers where 10 people were gunned down in March. But this shopping plaza in South Boulder—where the store shares space with a local breakfast haunt, a Whole Foods, a Pharmaca, a bike shop, and the always-packed Southern Sun brewery—is very much alive, and Neptune, which has held court here longer than any of these other businesses, is at the heart of it.
Johnson, who is currently nursing an injured leg, tells me she used to sleep in Bob and Ruth Wade’s basement back in the early 2000s. She had just launched a contract apparel-purchasing company called Outdoor Apparel Insights, and the Wades’ Aspen-based shop, Ute Mountaineer, was her third client. But Johnson couldn’t afford the expense of an Aspen hotel room and had set up shop in a local campground, so the Wades, who fully understood the crash-on-any-available-couch lifestyle of the climbing bum, told her just to sleep at their place.
“I stayed there every month for almost a decade,” says Johnson. Along the way, she watched the Wades’ daughter Maile (now Maile Spung) grow up into the business even as she was pursuing a career as a ski patroller at Aspen Snowmass and a mountain guide at Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park. “When I decided to take a job in corporate buying, Maile took over my role,” says Johnson, “So I taught her everything I knew.” When Spung and her father purchased Neptune, Johnson was ready to return the favor: She let them sleep in her basement when they came down to Boulder.
And they, in turn, brought her on as the store’s general manager. That made sense not only because Johnson was a friend, but because she has helped Neptune’s apparel business climb to over $1 million in sales. “I don’t really need a job,” says Johnson. “I don’t need to be doing this, but I’m here to show that it can be done, to be able to create a blueprint for the future—not just for outdoor, but for whatever it is that you’re passionate about. It’s about connecting your community with your passion.”
That passion is what has always driven both Neptune and Ute Mountaineering, and it’s why Spung, who also serves on the board of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, saw the opportunity to show just how specialty retail can thrive—by connecting to community. “We never thought that we would want to expand outside of our comfort zone,” says Spung. “But we started thinking about being able to reach more people and teach them how to have a great experience outside, and teach them that there are things out there worth preserving. But we also felt a sense of pride in our industry and in these iconic stores. Based on our experience, we thought we could bring the store forward into the future with the same intentions that Gary Neptune had all along.”
It’s only natural that Ute Mountaineer and Neptune Mountaineering would eventually find the same path. Both shops were founded by mercurial climbers who grounded themselves in retail as a way of sharing the expertise they gained from so much time in the hills. And both began in Boulder, Colorado. Bob Wade was the classic University of Colorado rock jock, studying geology and working for Bob Culp at the legendary Boulder Mountaineer (which closed in 2009).
With Culp mentorinig him, Wade thrived in the store partnered with him to take over the small Boulder Mountaineer in Aspen. When Culp sold his interests to Wade a few years later, he renamed the shop the Ute Mountaineer as a tip of the hat to the first residents of Aspen—the Ute Tribe. What was to become “the Ute,” as it is referred to by those who love it, opened on April Fool’s Day 1977, in an office space adjacent to Aspen’s haute walking mall (though in those days, dirt-bag ski bums and a gun-slinging Hunter S. Thompson still gave the quintessential mountain town some spice).
The shop expanded in the 1990s from its modest digs into a surrounding space and upstairs, cementing it as a fixture in the community, powered by the Wade family as full participants in the Roaring Fork Valley’s dedicated outdoor lifestyle. “Beneath the veneer of Aspen lies a strong community of skiers, climbers, cyclists, and trail runners—and the Wade family is right in the center of the local scene,” says Penn Newhard, founder of Backbone Media in nearby Carbondale. “They are as comfortable in the retail world as they are on ski tours, river trips, or running around the mountains. Bob and Maile are the walking ethos of mountain living.
Of course, they have the experience from running the shop, but they also intuitively understand their customers because they are their customers.” Neptune Mountaineering also opened on April Fool’s Day, four years earlier in 1973, with a focus on boot repair and selling primarily hardgoods and technical climbing gear. Neptune, the man and the shop, were the real deal. Already an accomplished climber, Gary Neptune crushed ski marathons in Norway and ticked off 8,000-meter peaks, including Everest, Makalu, and Gasherblam II, while operating the store. On his first trip to the Himalayas in 1981, he summited Ama Dablam on a five-day solo push.
Neptune Mountaineering radiated its owner’s zest for adventure, staffed with core employees who backcountry skied the nearby Indian Peaks and spidered up classic lines in Eldorado Canyon. The store drew climbers and ramblers from around the planet, both for the insight of its employees and the breadth of its technical product offering. “My dad has been climbing his whole life—that’s how he got into this business,” says Spung. “But when we took our first trip down to Neptune to talk about buying it, they were showing him some cams that he had never seen before.” That legacy and authenticity permeated Neptune to the very walls.
Early on, Gary started to create a sort of ad hoc museum of his adventures, putting memorabilia from his trips up on the wall. That collection began to grow into what is now one of the most impressive mountaineering musuems in the world, complete with a signed boot from Sir Edmund Hilary’s 1953 first ascent of Everest, Peter Habeler’s down suit from the first Everest ascent without oxygen, a piton hammer that belonged to pioneering climber Layton Kor, carabiners from Victorian times, and two frostbitten toes, among numerous other items. Beyond the museum, Neptune established itself as a center for climbers and adventurers of all types to come, speak, and present slideshows.
It became not just a retail store, but a community gathering place. In 2013, Gary sold Neptune Mountaineering to Texas-based retail chain Backwoods. It seemed like a good move at the time. Backwoods would supply the back end that a small store just couldn’t provide; it promised to keep Neptune distinct from its other stores; and it even kept Gary on as curator of his museum. But the store lost some of its soul, and Backwoods hit bankruptcy in late 2016, putting the future of Neptune in doubt.
Along came Shelley and Andrew Dunbar who at the time were distributing Australian gear manufacturer Sea to Summit in the U.S.—but had never owned a retail store before. The pair bought the business in February 2017 and began an intense remodeling effort that would not just breathe life into the shop but also show how a core independent outdoor retailer could become an attraction for shoppers of all ability levels on the outdoor spectrum.
“When we initially bought Neptune, we did it—and I know this sounds corny—as a community service,” says Shelley Dunbar. “We truly believed that this iconic specialty retailer, so beloved by all of us in the community, shouldn’t just disappear. But we didn’t want to just bring it back to life as its former self; we also wanted to prove that an independent store like Neptune could evolve, could attract new customers while maintaining authenticity with existing customers and also be financially successful.”
The Dunbars did just that. The store not only continued to be the most important place for local skiers and climbers to seek out technical expertise and repairs, it also drew in new customers with outdoor lifestyle brands like Kavu and Prana front and center and a café near the extensive map section where locals can share stories and work on laptops. And the Dunbars championed what the outdoor industry does best, showcasing small startup brands via an innovative LAB project that gave newcomers space in the store with product and videos that customers could watch to learn more. The remodel aligned itself to a new and changing outdoor industry.
The store went beyond hardcore mountaineering and felt representative of the ethics and demographics that prioritize inclusivity and sustainability that have been taking center stage at the Outdoor Retailer show. “We took a 70s-era strip mall space and transformed it into something beautiful and engaging,” says Dunbar. “When the remodel began, some people—especially the long-time customers and employees—were worried that it would end up as some shiny new, soulless space with none of the character and grunge that people associated with Neptune. But once it was done, we’d hear over and over again from customers gushing about how much they loved just wandering around, exploring.”
But the Dunbars were never in it for the long haul. “We worked really hard and invested quite a bit for all those things to happen,” says Dunbar. “Once we had achieved those things, our plan from the beginning was to find someone who would be as passionately invested and determined as we were, so that Neptune would endure for decades into the future.”
Enter the Ute. Bob Wade was in the process of turning more of the business over to his daughter, but Spung had not been planning on expanding. Meanwhile, the Dunbars were not publicly putting Neptune up for sale. They were sending out feelers, however, and there was synergy with Bob and Maile.
“One of the reasons we were really interested in buying Neptune, when the opportunity came up, is that it has such a similar legacy and it has such a similar connection to the community that we have,” says Spung. “And and that’s a huge part of what we do here at the Ute—trying to give back to the community that supports us. It keeps us in business and it keeps our doors open. We feel that Neptune has that as well. We wanted to continue that feeling.”
“We absolutely wanted to find a local Colorado company to take over Neptune. That was one reason we didn’t list it for sale,” says Shelley Dunbar. “We’d talked to several others, but we were the most excited when we got word that the Ute was interested. They have such a similar DNA, and they clearly know what it takes to run a successful independent store. We also loved how community-focused they are and how they care for their employees. Neptune also needed an owner that would have the energy to carry on doing what we began, which is to keep evolving it and responding to the changes that are inevitable in retail. We just felt confident that they would be the people to make Neptune even better than when we handed it off.”
The Dunbars set Neptune on the right path. Spung and Johnson and the entire Neptune staff are ready to see where they can take it, and they are all dedicated to a future that, while still celebrating and serving the core mountaineer, also makes the customer feel as if they are part of the endeavor no matter their ability level. You see that ethos on the floor of both shops. The employees don’t just love the gear. They love getting other people to love the gear—and the experience of getting out and using it.
“I don’t really care so much about the person leaving the store,” says Spung. “I care about the person coming back in and saying, ‘wow, you know, I bought this backpack, I bought this jacket, and we had the best time because your person led me to this product and it really made our experience better.’” Spung also stresses that there are a lot of people out there who need this experience, both in Aspen, where Covid flight has brought people who have very little experience outdoors to mountain towns, and in South Boulder, where the community is made up of a lot of young families. Neptune wants to make them all a part of the greater retail equation.
“There are so many pieces to being successful in retail. It’s really hard to get them all aligned,” says Johnson. “Leadership is crucial—connection with the community, the product mix, inventory management, the kind of environment that you create when people walk in the door, the ability to give back, not just locally, but to the consumers themselves. You have to keep them coming back. You have to keep talking to them. You have to keep appealing to them with more than the product. You need to show that you’re more than just that. You need to show that you are about helping them have a better experience in the outdoors. We’re all in a partnership together for the greater good of the enjoyment of the outdoors.”
The lesson for retailers who do not own legacy shops with climbing museums and long histories of serving an outdoor-focused community? Welcome everyone. And that’s not only the path forward for retailers looking to succeed, but for the entire industry.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything extra special here other than taking great care of our employees, taking great care of our customers, and being really welcoming to all kinds of people coming in our door,” says Spung. “I think at the end of the day, that’s what keeps people coming back. It’s not rocket science.”
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