An Outdoor View

Twenty years of columns

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2007

Author’s note:Tuesday marked my 20th anniversary of writing outdoor columns for the Clarion. When I began, John Marrs was editor, I was writing on a Remington typewriter and no one dreamed there would ever be 350 Kenai River guides.

Following is my first column, “The catalog store: Paying less but enjoying it less,” which was published in “The Tides,” a Clarion weekly features and TV magazine, on June 12, 1987.

Thank you, Clarion, for giving me such a long ride and so much free rein.

Sporting goods catalogs are showing up in my mailbox as regularly as cost overruns on a government contract. It’s getting scary. You see, if people order sporting goods by mail, it’ll kill an institution as American as the cracker barrel, the small sporting goods shop.

In one of these dens of loquacity, I learned as a boy what my father wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me about hunting and fishing. Cliff’s Sporting Goods was located slightly off course of a straight line between school and my house. I strayed from the straight line often.

Etched between pistol cases and rifle racks in my memory, Cliff Gilbertson always had time to talk about where the trout were biting or why shotgun shells cost more money than I had. He liked to talk about hunting and fishing at least as much as his customers, who usually left after an hour of conversation, and without buying a thing.

But sporting goods shops have always been like that. During the late 1800s, gun inventor John M. Browning laid in a stock of sporting goods in his Ogden, Utah shop to help defray the costs of his inventing habit. Quicker than you can say “negative cash flow,” he saw that the proportion of conversation to sales ran higher in a sporting goods store than in any other retail business. This observation has been made by every sport-shop owner since, but few will quit the business as long as they can keep the lights on. John Browning didn’t.

Do people in the gun and tackle business prefer talking tackle to making money? It seems they do. Among small sport-shop owners, rich ones are scarcer than politicians in an honesty contest.

When Cliff Gilbertson stopped what he was doing to glue a new tip onto a rod that someone else had sold me, it wasn’t for money. Then there was the time he sold me a reel for less than he’d paid for it, because it had “something wrong with it.” What was wrong was that it cost 10 dollars more than I had. Cliff kept himself broke doing things like that.

He didn’t squander all his fishing and hunting knowledge on you the first time you went into his shop, either. When he thought you were ready, he’d patiently explain how to lead a duck or cast to a steelhead. Doling out his experience, he kept me coming back like a pheasant to a corn patch.

Catalogs are out to get guys like Cliff. A computer in Nebraska or Missouri will do in a second what took Cliff an hour, but it can’t tell you how to smoke a salmon. An invisible mailperson will put your tackle in your mailbox, but he can’t tell you how much leader to use.

It takes a special kind of person to run a sporting goods shop. It takes someone who will listen patiently to a complaint that a new rifle “doesn’t feel right” and who will make it right. It takes someone who can bear to watch a teenager “test” every fishing rod in the rack, and then buy a box of split shot with the money he made picking up pop bottles from ditches. It takes a guy like Cliff Gilbertson.

Cliff died a few years back. He hasn’t been replaced by a computer, he’d be happy to know. But we lose something priceless when someone like Cliff is gone.

The small sporting goods shop isn’t quite gone yet, but their owners know how the American bison felt when it saw its first Sharps rifle. Catalogitis is spreading like AIDS. Luckily for Alaskans, most of us would rather talk fishin’ and huntin’ than making money, so small shops here aren’t so much “endangered” as they are “threatened.”

I think the reason TV shows like “Fishing with Orlando Wilson” are so popular is that people like to hear how to fish from real people. The “how-to” magazines probably owe their popularity to the scarcity of sports-shop experts, too.

You’d think that sporting goods manufacturers would see that catalogs are hurting the small shops. You’d think that the manufacturers would try to help them. You’d be wrong. Many manufacturers seem bent on putting small shops out of business. Catalog “stores,” with their tremendous purchasing power, can often retail an item for less than a small shop can buy the same item wholesale. Small shops can’t survive much of that.

And how do we, the customers, fare? We end up paying a little less and getting a lot less.

I know catalogs and computers are part of our modern lives, but I can’t help but think that we also need places with a caring, human touch. I believe the small sporting goods shop is one of these places.

I’m going to fight back. The next catalog I get goes in the trash. Yeah, I know I can get it cheaper in the catalog than at the local sports shop. But if I order from the catalog, I’ll never find anyone like Cliff. Just for the possibility of finding someone like him, I’m willing to pay more. A lot more.

Les Palmer is a writer who lives in Sterling.

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