Brent Weiss was just 13 in 1969 when he started working for his uncle, Dan Weinberg, at his dry-goods store in Chicago with his 15-year-old brother Mark. Tragedy struck two years later when their beloved uncle died suddenly. But the two brothers decided that the store should continue, and the following year they opened up Uncle Dan’s Army-Navy Store in a 900-square-foot space on Bryn Mawr Avenue in Chicago.
“There wasn’t anything called an outdoor store—it was army surplus,” said Brent, recalling those early days at the store. Located close to Von Steuben High School, the store catered to the neighborhood by selling used military clothing, bell bottoms (this was 1972), flannel shirts, black lights, posters and incense. Of course, they had “pup tents” and other army surplus products that could be used for camping, and they had the store motto that they could get “anything you could desire.”
Two years later they opened a second store in Skokie, this one once again catered to the neighborhood, which featured more families. They started stocking more camping supplies like mess kits, canteens and wool blankets.
“It’s funny how we just put the word ‘army,’ in front of everything,” Brent said. “There was army insect repellent, army duffle bags.”
A third location was opened in 1975 near DePaul, and Alvin, the boys’ dad, joined the operation. Mark left in 1980 to pursue other interests, and Brent and Al continued to run the business.
In 1994, a new store opened in Evanston, and by then it had evolved more into what we expect from an outdoor store today. The new store, Uncle Dan’s Camping and Travel, highlighted the growing brands in the outdoor world that were also crossing over to mainstream use. The store, now at 901 West Church St. in Evanston (with additional locations in Highland Park and Wrigleyville), focuses on outdoor footwear and apparel, in addition to equipment for hiking, camping, trail running, and other outdoor pursuits.
“Quality is a core value of ours,” Brent said. “It may not be the cheapest thing, but you’re going to get a product that lasts. And it’s a product that you’ll love.”
Much like the early days, when they were creating their catalogs on a typewriter, Brent and his team spend a lot of time looking for the best products available on the market. They also like to find some off-the-radar products.
“We have a great buying team, and we try to find trends,” Brent said.
Uncle Dan’s prides itself on training a sales staff that knows the products and how they’re going to be used. “It’s not about customer service, it’s about the customer experience,” he said.
“One of the things I teach to my staff, is that when a customer walks in and asks for something, ask them what they’re doing with it,” Brent said. “They often ask for something, and there’s something else that will meet their needs better. That’s why we’re here, to help them find the best products to fit their needs.”
The trends to packable, lightweight and comfortable clothing continues, along with an added focus on UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating in clothing. Travel is a big focus for Uncle Dan’s, which serves an Evanston community that goes all over the world.
“We get the hardcore travelers in here,” Brent said. “They’re going to Patagonia or somewhere else exotic, and they’re planning to walk 100 miles. They’re looking for something that’s lightweight and flexible.”
The increase in adventure travel has also contributed to the mainstream appeal of outdoor products for everyday use.
“I wouldn’t say it surprises me, from a business standpoint,” Brent said. “When the Gap or a Nordstrom comes out with outdoor lifestyle, you see how large it has become.
But he is happy to have a store that’s committed to actually getting people outside to enjoy nature.
“We’re always having conversations with people, about how they’re using the gear and what (sports) are becoming more popular,” Brent said. “If we didn’t stay on target, we wouldn’t still be around.”