According to store lore, it was no less than the pursuit of romance and adventure that led Kirk and Tina Miller to open the first of five Walkabout Outfitter in Virginia. Kirk, an Eagle Scout-cum-civil engineer, completed a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 1999. That experience had him testing intimately the very gear he would eventually sell.
However, it wasn’t until after he moved to Lexington, VA in 2003 that he met his cohort, Tina, in her kitchen supplies store, Ladles & Linens. As their relationship progressed, Kirk hit on the idea of opening a small, friendly outfitter like the ones he had encountered on the AT. Relying heavily on Tina’s 18 years of experience in retail, the couple opened the first Walkabout Outfitter downtown.
They married soon thereafter, and now have two young sons, Alex and Finn.
Eleven years after opening that first store, the couple now has Walkabout Outfitter outposts in old buildings in downtown Lexington, Roanoke (and a second at the mall), Harrisonburg, and the Carytown area of Richmond. Another store is slated to open in a newer structure in Blacksburg in July 2016. (Ladles & Linens still has three locations of its on in Lexington, Carytown-Richmond and next door to Walkabout Outfitter in Roanoke.)
Locating in the old downtowns of these communities was deliberate, Kirk said. It gets them involved in important revitalization efforts. “We’re definitely community based. It differentiates us,” he said.
The stores tend to be small, 4,000 to 6,000 square feet. “Originally that was out of necessity. But by our sixth year we realized that you can lose a lot in a store that’s too large.”
He isn’t referring to inventory going missing when he says this. He means that service can suffer when a store becomes too big and impersonal. That philosophy also explains why Walkabout Outfitter sells nothing online, aside from gift certificates, but sponsors “every community event we possibly can.”
“We’re focused on lifestyle rather than gear,” Kirk explains. “You really need to come to one of our stores and try things on and get fitted for backpacks. And products than can save your life—camping stoves, water filters—you really need to talk to someone in person who knows how well it works and can put it in your hand."
Naturally, Walkabout Outfitter is interested in outfitting participants in the local events it sponsors—from 5Ks to the Blue Ridge Marathon in Roanoke, to a couple roots music festivals a year. “Any event related to the outdoors we’ll sponsor,” Kirk said.
The stores also host speakers and workshops that are free to attend. How to select a backpack and introductory yoga sessions are examples. A popular and repeat presenter is Jennifer Pharr Davis, who in 2011 set the record for the fastest thru-hike of the AT, averaging 47 miles a day for nearly 46 ½ days. (Only ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek has done it faster by 3 hours and 12 minutes in July 2015.)
Just as Kirk was inspired by his own AT thru hike, he hopes his stores, sponsorships and community boosterism inspires others.
“This is our passion, seven days a week,” he said.
This content was produced for your enjoyment, thanks to a partnership among Walkabout Outfitter, OSM, Osprey Packs, Chaco, and RootsRated.
Originally written for Outdoor Sports Marketing.