As a graduate student at the University of Virginia, Peter G. Rice started doing market research on how a backpacking store would fare in Charlottesville. His initial research indicated that it would fail, but he went ahead and opened the store anyway in 1972.
“Here we are, more than 40 years later,” says Aaron Hammer, the manager of Blue Ridge Mountain Sports in Charlottesville.
Not a bad run for a “backpack store.”
The store has expanded over the years and now has seven locations in Virginia, Tennessee and New Jersey, with Charlottesville serving as the base of operations. Of course the reason that Rice called it a backpack store was because the concept of an outdoor store as we know it today didn’t exist. But even then, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports catered to many of the same pursuits that draw people outside today.
“It’s always been an outdoor store” says Hammer. “We’ve focused on hiking, backpacking, kayaking, camping and even some rock climbing…There are so many great places to get outside around Charlottesville. We’ve benefitted from having those resources so close by.”
That focus hasn’t changed a whole lot—even if the sports and equipment have.
Trail running shoes have for the most part replaced the bulky hiking boots that took hours and hours to wear-in. Large backpacks that required a big investment have been replaced by smaller packs that feature the latest in high-tech fabrics and design.
“It seems like people don’t have the time to go on long trips anymore,” says Hammer. “We see a lot more day-hiking. Everything now is light and fast—and it’s a lot more comfortable.”
In addition to having the most up-to-date equipment available, Hammer sees the role of an outdoor store as a gathering place for outdoor enthusiasts to share information on their pursuits. It’s up to the store to not only know why a product will work, but where to get the most enjoyment out of it.
“We want to help people find a good campsite or trail, as well as give them the equipment they need,” he said. “We want to hear from them. Where are the best places they have found?”
Events like the Banff Film Festival, which the store sponsors at the Paramount Theater each year, and donations to the Shenandoah National Park Trust are ways that Blue Ridge has helped to grow the outdoor community.
While many of the sports remain the same, the popularity of an active, outdoor lifestyle and culture has increased dramatically over the years. Trail running, mountain biking, yoga, hiking and paddling have all found mainstream acceptance and interest—with their apparel now a part of everyday life.
“It’s definitely become a lifestyle thing,” says Hammer. “You find people wearing a Mountain Hardwear technical long-sleeve T-shirt out for dinner. It’s just become how people dress.”
That strong brand-loyalty has developed in thanks to the outdoor industry’s willingness to go the extra mile to make sure athletes are supported. “We work with great companies that stand behind their products,” says Hammer. “When something goes wrong, they make it right. Quality really means something.”
That’s been part of Blue Ridge Mountain Sports secret to success for more than 40 years as well.
“It always goes back to customer service,” says Hammer. “If you’re friendly and knowledgeable and can help people out, you do well.”