WILLIAMSTOWN -- Most of today’s outdoor gear was built to last a lifetime. While that’s reassuring, and potentially good for the environment as well, such competitively designed gear has its disadvantages: It’s usually expensive to buy new, and when you do buy it, you may have trouble ever finding an excuse to replace it as styles and personal tastes evolve.
That’s partly the idea behind the Gear Den, a new consignment store on Water Street that builds on the value of product endurance. By aiming to keep quality outdoor gear circulating in the community, it provides both a cash return on used gear, and more affordable prices on outdoor products that can last for decades.
After a "soft-opening" phase that began last fall, and with a steadily growing inventory, the Gear Den (in the former Mountain Goat building) is shaping up for its grand opening in early May. The celebration will coincide with Cinco de Mayo, and include food and drink, as well as a clothing drive and sale.
Gear Den co-founder Steve Hinchliffe also founded Nature’s Closet, which moved to Spring Street in 2009 after operating for 10 years in Bennington. Nature’s Closet sells mostly new products
"When we started Nature’s Closet, the environmental aspect of brands like Patagonia, making quality clothing that lasts forever, was a huge part of what we wanted to do," Hinchliffe said, "and we did a lot of stuff with different wilderness organizations along the way.
Consigners can choose between 50 percent cash back on their sale, or a 60-percent benefit as store credit at Nature’s Closet. "We kind of think of it as a co-op, too," Hinchliffe said. Consigners can choose to work at the store in exchange for 100 percent of the profits on their sale. "So it’s a real cooperative kind of a space."
In 2012 Hinchliffe teamed up with Imran Khoja, a Williams student and business entrepreneur who was promoting Two Degrees Food, a snack bar company with a socially responsible mission. For every bar sold, it donates a nutrition pack to a hungry child. At the time, Nature’s Closet, Ephporium, and Eco Café on the Williams Campus were all carrying the Two Degrees Food brand.
While at Williams, Khoja also started his own company, Designed Good, which connects conscientious consumers to socially responsible brands through an online membership network. The proposal for the company in 2012 earned Khoja and business partner/classmate Katy Gathrite a $15,000 seed grant and other support from Williamstown business owner Jeffrey Thomas, who works with Williams to promote entrepreneurship.
Khoja now runs Designed Good from Boston and plans to continue expanding the company when he starts at Stamford Business School in 2014. Until then, he also plans to continue serving as an advisor to the Gear Den.
Shortly after he and Hinchliffe met, they began talking about starting a consignment section in Natures Closet, since the community had expressed a desire for used outdoor clothing. "It was just a rack at Nature’s Closet," Khoja said, but the community loved it and the products had a fast turnaround.
"And at the end of the summer last year we decided, hey this is kind of working. We want it to be more of a community hub, we want to have space, so let’s try and do something bigger - and then the Gear Den was born."
Hinchliffe originally hoped to expand into an adjacent building on Spring Street, but when the Mountain Goat closed last year, the store’s owner, Jay Merselis, contacted him about taking over the building. Seeing the potential for more than a just consignment store, Hinchliffe opened the Gear Den and asked Khoja to partner with him in brainstorming ideas for the new space.
The Mountain Goat still owns the building, which includes an upstairs apartment and a lower level that has been a bike shop in the past. Hinchliffe hopes to purchase the building this summer so he can begin making changes to the property.
Among the added features he and Khoja envision for the store are a hostel in the lower level, and possibly working with local restaurants and farms to offer a simple menu. They also plan on hosting tag sales, community gatherings, and outdoor-themed lectures and workshops.
"We want to create this really dynamic community hub and a space that is really cross-generational and cross-functional," Khoja said. "We want townspeople from the Berkshire area to through hikers to college students to find value in the Gear Den - whether that’s using it as a meeting place to go on a run, having a community meeting, or using it as a place to grab a bite or stay the night."
Among those who would benefit from a hostel are the many hikers who pass through on the Appalachian Trail, skiers and visiting students. While the accommodations would be simple - a room with six to eight bunks, showers, bathrooms and a common area - many travellers appreciate the social interaction and affordability that hostels offer. Beds would run at around $20 per night.
Khoja’s experience and connections as a student has helped provide direction for how the Gear Den can help meet the needs and desires of the town’s younger population. In particular, Khoja said, students will appreciate an all-in-one outdoor gear and clothing shop where they can find "more hardcore gear" such as skis, bikes and snowshoes.
"So I think we definitely bring value to students through that, and I think it will only bring more value as time goes on and we’re able to establish ourselves and try out some of these new ideas," Khoja said.
"We have a big overarching vision, and there are all these ideas that we’re constantly thinking about and working on testing and so on," he said. "But that’s the great part about this space. It has a soul and we’re just trying to figure out exactly which ways to make it most effective."