For 50 years, Alpine Shop has been outfitting St. Louisans for adventures big and small, inspiring us to get out there and explore.
What started as a small climbing store now caters to outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds, from hikers and cyclists to climbers, paddlers, campers, skiers and beyond at four locations in Missouri and Kansas.
Climber Bob Mooers opened the independent specialty retailer in 1973 after persuading Chouinard Equipment (which later became Patagonia) to let him be a dealer. Originally called Mooers Alpine, the store’s first home was upstairs from Mooers’ home-winemaking store.
Current owner Russell “Holly” Hollenbeck came on the scene in 1978. Business was booming, but Mooers was looking to relocate to the Northwest. Holly, also an avid outdoorsman and regular customer of Mooers Alpine, was looking for a change away from corporate life. He purchased the store, changing the name to Alpine Shop. His wife and co-owner, Lisa, transitioned from a legal career to focus full-time on keeping the Shop solvent when she became co-owner shortly after.
A Passion for the Outdoors
The move was a perfect fit for Holly, who just celebrated his 90th birthday this past December. He and Lisa continue to come into the shop daily and participate in every big business decision. Holly found his own way to the outdoors, saying he can’t recall even going on a picnic with his family while growing up in Portland, Oregon.
“When I was 14, I took myself on the bus up to the Columbia River Gorge to hike,” he said. “I find spirituality in the mountains and the wilderness. When I was a kid, I took every book about the outdoors out of the library. I can’t tell you why. It’s just who I was. I want everyone to have those kinds of experiences.”
Led by Alpine Shop’s vision of seeing “Generations Transformed by Discovery Outdoors,” Holly has no doubt helped countless people find the same sense of wonder with nature — including his two older sons, whose love for the outdoors was sparked during a particularly memorable Appalachian Trail backpacking trip when the boys were 5 and 6.
Changing with the Times
Alpine Shop has continually evolved, pivoting to how people want to get outside and innovating new ways to bring the outdoor-loving community together.
When Holly took over, the shop mainly focused on climbing gear while also offering a small number of down jackets, canoes, and cross-country skis. Fifty years later, kayaks are all the rage, and climate change has pretty much killed the local market for cross-country skis (at one time, Holly recalls selling 800 pairs in one season).
Now, whatever your outdoor passion, Alpine Shop is a trusted go-to for finding high-quality gear and experienced salespeople to help outfit you for your adventure.
Notably, Alpine Shop played an influential role in getting major brands to begin making and selling women-specific gear. It’s hard to believe now, but just a few decades ago, women were expected to buy a men’s small or extra-small — there was no acknowledgement that women’s bodies were different or that women might be as interested as men in outdoor recreation.
Holly addressed the shop’s dedication to women adventurers in his 2019 acceptance speech for winning Retailer of the Year from the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, an organization of over 100 independent outdoor retailers throughout the country that Alpine Shop has been part of since 2002.
“When I took over the Shop, on April Fool’s Day 1978, we were all guys, selling mostly guy stuff, and mostly to other guys,” he said in his speech. “It didn’t happen overnight, but today I’m proud to say about half of our staff and of our leadership team are women. We were among the first to support the pioneer suppliers of women’s technical gear, and we did all we could to encourage more vendors to get on board and give us greater selection.”
Building Outdoor Community
An important aspect in Alpine Shop’s continued success has been its robust events program, which Lisa founded in the 1990s to help the business out of a tough spot. “When I first started, my job was to convince credit managers to not close us or stop shipping to us,” she said. “Holly told me there are two ways to get out of this mess — one is layoffs and holding a fire sale, and the other is getting more people in the door and selling them more stuff.”
By 2019, the Alpine Shop was hosting more than 400 clinics, programs, or events annually across its four stores. The most popular events include the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour, Al-Pint Nights to raise funds for local nonprofits, the Trail Run Series that takes place every Thursday in August, and the Castlewood 8-Hour Adventure Race (one of the largest amateur adventure races in the country and a repeat winner of the Terrain Magazine Readers’ Choice Award).
Far more than a sales tactic, Alpine Shop’s events are a mainstay in the local outdoor community, bringing people together and cultivating a deeper community love for getting outside. Beginners are always welcome. Running the gamut from paddling, running, and cycling races to camping trips, outdoor-focused film festivals, and skills clinics, there’s an impressive array on offer.
Events, of course, were not immune to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, Alpine Shop hosted only around 75 events. “For 2023, we’re actively pushing to get us back over 200 events,” said Marketing Manager Todd Oswald. For information on upcoming events and clinics, visit alpineshopevents.com.
Alpine Shop itself is a strong community, says Angie Bono, manager of the Kirkwood location. “I call it a biome because everything we do is in house and takes a lot of collaboration and hard work. Over the years, we always figure out how to get things done, even when it seems impossible.”
‘The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had on a Job’
Holly and Lisa are quick to credit Alpine Shop employees for their long-term success.
Many employees end up making a lifelong career in the outdoors industry, landing at the industry’s top brands. Eddie Bauer CEO Tim Bantle, for example, worked at Alpine Shop in the ’90s and early 2000s. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a job,” he said. “It’s such a special place. One of the most enjoyable things was outfitting someone going on a big trip with some of the best gear from the best brands in the world.”
Another notable alum is Peter Carleton, sales manager for The North Face. His relationship with the store began when he was a Boy Scout, when he would shop there for camping trip supplies. He found his way back almost on a whim. “I was working a different job and riding public transportation,” he said. “One time, I took a bus that went right by the shop. I pulled the chain, went in, and applied.” He started part-time but loved it so much he soon made the switch to full-time, eventually becoming store manager of the Kirkwood location.
It’s also not uncommon for Alpine Shop employees to stick around for decades. That includes Bono, who has been an employee for more than 20 years. She’s been helping some of the same customers for the entirety of her career there and relishes sharing her extensive knowledge. For her, it’s not just about selling gear, it’s about helping people actually get out there and have a great time.
“If I’m helping a customer with a boat, I tell them my favorite parts to paddle in Missouri,” Bono said. “On float trips on the Current River, I’ll see a customer I’ve helped and invite them to camp on our gravel bar.”
For Bono, it’s all about the people and her love for nature. “To be a locally owned and independent retailer helping people get outside and learning to protect and love the environment like we love the environment, that’s one of the reasons I come to work every day,” she said.
Alpine Shop’s North Star has always been the passion of its customers and staff — never profits. “When I was trying to understand the shop’s financials more than 20 years ago, I told Holly paddle sports were sucking us dry,” Lisa says. “When I asked Holly what we should do about it, he replied ‘I don’t know, because that’s part of who we are, and that’s why I’ve never taken investors.’”
Ultimately, Alpine Shop’s mission is to help as many people as possible connect with the wonders of nature. “There’s something about the outdoors that’s common to all of us,” said Lisa, “and we feel the whole world would be a better place if everyone would spend more time there.”
Author: Stephanie Zeilenga is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Images: Courtesy of Alpine Shop.
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