What: Neptune Mountaineering 40th Anniversary
When: Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m.
Where: Neptune Mountaineering, 633 S. Broadway
More info: http://neptunemountaineering.com/
W hen Dan Vardamis moved to Boulder in 1991 as an 18-year-old from Vermont, he remembers clearly the moment he first stepped inside Neptune Mountaineering, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this week.
“It was awe-inspiring,” he said, “There’s all this mountaineering history on the walls, all this skiing history on the walls and you’re part of it. You’re in this Mecca for outdoor sports. It’s like a toy store for adults with skis and climbing gear. It was all this eclectic stuff, like going into a pirate ship.”
This Thursday, the store celebrates 40 years in business at 7 p.m. with a small open house and slideshow presented by Gary Neptune.
Neptune, 67, founded the business April 1, 1973. Back then, he was “just fixing boots,” re-shafting ice axes and providing other services, he said. The first store was on 30th Street, in what used to be Crossroads Mall.
In 1976, the shop moved to a second 30th Street location, and Neptune purchased a small cross-country ski shop named Norsk.
In 1983, after selling the boot repair business, the shop moved again to 627 S. Broadway, the current home of Southern Sun Pub and Brewery. The retail business, which had started out as an afterthought to Neptune, kept growing, and in 1993 Neptune Mountaineering settled into its current home, 633 S. Broadway.
In that 40-year span, other outdoor businesses came and went, Neptune said, recalling a Boulder with friendly competition between locally owned ski, mountaineering and climbing shops.
Holubar Mountaineering, Eastern Mountain Sport, Boulder Mountaineering and Mountain Sports all carved out a niche in the industry, Neptune said, before REI came to town in 2002 and made it difficult for many to local businesses to compete.
Dougald MacDonald, American Alpine Club publications executive editor, said Neptune Mountaineering is “super core” in that it caters to serious climbers, skiers and outdoor enthusiasts.
“Since the Boulder Mountaineer went away, it’s been the only core outdoor store in town,” he said. “It doesn’t stock a lot of the sort of fashionable things, but they stock the things that matter to the real core participants.”
The store has stuck around through good and bad economic times because it employees “expert” employees, MacDonald said, who can answer complex questions from serious athletes and enthusiasts.
Vardamis — the 18-year-old the store made a big impression on — is now 39 and began working at Neptune Mountaineering three years ago. He and his wife, Elaine Vardamis, who also works at the store, are avid skiers and outdoor enthusiasts.
The backcountry skiing crowd has always identified itself with Neptune Mountaineering, Vardamis said. For a long time, he said, Neptune’s store was the only place in town that sold the more fringe styles of skiing gear. Plus, he said, Neptune has built a community following, which has separated him from the other stores.
The south Boulder shop has hosted renowned outdoor guests like pro skier Chris Davenport, English mountaineer Simon Yates and Reinhold Messner, who is known for making the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen.
After closing up the shop on Thursdays, the Neptune staff sets up folding chairs, a projector screen and a small table with a few alcoholic beverages (all in moderation). Usually, about 50 or so people show up to the store on Thursday nights to hear presentations and see slideshows from climbers, skiers and others.
The gatherings are a jump-start to weekends full of skiing, climbing and hiking, Vardamis said. More importantly, they’ve provided a space for the Boulder outdoors community to convene, socialize and discuss relevant issues.
Online retail boomed in the early 2000s and became Neptune’s biggest competitor. The internet has proved to be the store’s biggest challenge to date, Neptune said.
“The internet’s about cheap, not about quality or service or anything else,” he said. “That’s tough for retail to compete with. It’s real tough.”
But the store’s still standing.
On December 31 last year, Texas-based outdoor retail chain Backwoods purchased Neptune Mountaineering. Backwoods, which also turned 40 this year, will take Neptune Mountaineering online, something Neptune said he tried to do for several years, but hadn’t been able to do successfully.
Neptune Mountaineering became the ninth store for Backwoods. The chain can cut some of the Boulder store’s operating costs by ordering items in bulk, centralizing operations and providing new technologies for things like inventory management, said Backwoods CEO Jennifer Mull.
Mull has insisted since the acquisition that not much will change at Neptune Mountaineering. The name will stay the same, and the store’s focus will still be climbing and skiing, Mull said.
As for whether or not Neptune Mountaineering will still be around in another 40 years, Mull said she “hoped so.”
Gary Neptune agreed, but said someone else will need to keep the store its mountaineering museum in top shape — he’ll be too old by then to keep ambling around the store barefoot.
“It won’t be me,” Neptune said, chuckling.
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.