How The Wilderness Exchange Unlimited in Denver came to life [EP 066]

January 09, 2018
Don Bushey tells us about his early day's backcountry skiing and in outdoor retail at outdoor gear shop The Wilderness Exchange in Berkeley California. How it gave him the inspiration to launch a similar outdoor gear shop in Denver, Colorado. We also talk about some of the changes to the outdoor business over the years and what it takes to compete as an online store in the outdoor retail environment.

How did a guy with an English lit degree end up owning an outdoor gear shop?

You know, I got out of college and was going to take a year off and do the backcountry ski bum thing and then get on with my serious adult life. But one year became 10, 10 years became 20 and here I am.

What was your first exposure to skiing? Did you do that as a kid?

I did it as a kid growing up. I grew up in Michigan and we had a choice of several small hills that were augmented with trash. Actually, a lot of the municipalities would dump their trash on top of these hills. We actually had one we called Mount Trashmore. So, you know, we did a lot of turns. We only had 300 feet so we turned a lot.

You also spent some time in the Eastern Sierra right?

Yeah, I lived in Berkeley from, it was like 1990 to 98. I got my first job at an outdoor gear shop at the Berkeley REI in 1990. Yeah. And that was the year I got exposed to climbing and backcountry skiing and just fell in love with it. I spent a lot of time going to the Eastern Sierra. I learned to rock climb at Lover's Leap, Tuolumne Meadows, and spent a lot of time backcountry skiing in the Tahoe area and then the Eastern Sierra. That's a really special place. I love it out there.
Photographer: Dylan Taylor | Source: Unsplash

Was that your first outdoor job? Did you just walk in and apply or how'd you get the job at that retail store?

I heard about this place, REI and it was a co-op, so that sounded really cool. And I just fell into a lot of outdoor enthusiasts, like-minded people out there. I was 22, 23 years old, first year out of college. It kind of set me on my path. I could live very cheaply and tried to work as little as possible and just get out to the mountains as much as I could.

And how did you get to Colorado?

Well, as the years went on in Berkeley, it was a really special place in the 1990s. We called it the backcountry gear ghetto. I mean The North Face got their start there, Sierra Designs got started. Bob Swanson started Walrus down there, Royal Robbins was down there, Mountain Hardware started down there and in this little corner of the world, Gilman in San Pablo you had REI and then all of these other at that time locally made backcountry outdoor gear brands.
And a little funky outdoor gear shop across the street called Wilderness Exchange. Started by Jerry Jordan, we call him the godfather. Jerry kind of put together all of these ideas into one shop. You know, on one hand, it was a mountaineering shop and it was focused on climbing and skiing. But also kind of incorporated the factory outlet idea into it. Doing seconds and closeouts for manufacturers and then did a consignment and a resale outdoor business. So he was the first to really kind of combine all those ideas into one kind of outdoor business and it really attracted me. So I left REI and I went to work for Jerry in the early nineties and spent a few years at Wilderness Exchange in Berkeley.

Then you bounced out to Colorado to start another gear shop, what made you go to Colorado?

I assumed that this type of shop existed in every city everywhere. Right? And I went to Denver as I often went to Colorado check out rock climbing in Eldorado, which is quite a departure for somebody who was used to climbing Granite for sure.
So, yeah, I came out here, and I started to think about Denver as a place to live and somewhere where I could spend a lot of time.
I got a lot of mentorship from Jerry. He was really excited that I was going to carry on his idea in another location. And by that time I had met a lot of folks in the outdoor industry and made a lot of contacts and connections. I came out specifically looking for a place to open an outdoor gear shop. I looked at Boulder and at the time there were five mountaineering shops, really good ones in Boulder. So I kind of just waited to see a good opportunity. And REI back in I think 1999 announced that they were opening their flagship location in downtown Denver. And I flew in, came down and visited, and thought Oh, this is it.

What were some of the challenges getting started? Obviously finding a location for an outdoor gear shop is a big challenge.

Yeah, I had a closet full of outdoor gear and a lot of credit cards. I lived in the shop. It was a little place that had 500 square feet downstairs and a little apartment upstairs. So I’m okay, I can live here. I'm going to be working a lot anyway, so I might as well just live in the shop.
So I opened it up and it was primarily a consignment outdoor gear shop initially. Consignment's a great way to open a business because you don't have to buy the inventory. And there was this pent up inventory for outdoor gear in Denver that people wanted to sell. There's no venue or no good outdoor gear shop for reselling gear at the time. So we got a ton of inventory right away. A lot of outdoor enthusiast customers that wanted to both sell their old stuff and buy new stuff. And it just really took off at that point.

So what are you most proud of at starting The Wilderness Exchange?

I didn't really have a longterm plan of how it would go. I just thought that if I could make enough to keep it going I’d be fine. I hired a friend that I knew from Berkeley and eventually, I hired another guy. And I guess I'm most proud that we've been able to kind of keep the exact mission we started with going for 18 years of this.

How has the outdoor gear shop business changed?

It's evolved and you know as time went on we realized that we really could incorporate being a full-on backcountry skiing and climbing outdoor gear shop People wanted that from us as we evolved. We've always wanted to be the best climbing shop in the world. Sell everything a climber could ever dream of wanting. And you know, that was a big step for me because I originally envisioned the business as sort of a closeout consignment business. Sort of factory outlet model. But as it evolved we sort of became a full-line outdoor gear shop as well.

What's your take on the whole evolution of the eCommerce business and how it's impacted outdoor gear shops over the years?

I'm excited about the change. A lot of retailers have dialed up the customer service and gotten back to the old mountain shop days that we're used to. Right. Great service, great assortments, great people. I think that's what we have to provide. It's not a transactional business anymore. You have to provide an experience for your customers when they come into the shop. And it kind of has to blow their minds. You have to be exceptional now or you're not relevant.
The internet, we've embraced it. We do a lot of sales online as well as third party. There are three real strong components to our outdoor gear shop business. The brick and mortar and then e-commerce and third-party sales, they're all growing equally. Even e-commerce might be even growing a little more. It's cool for us because we can keep the store looking fresh or for our customers. We can turn a lot of old stuff online and you there's a lot of deals in the shop. We do a lot of closeouts, buying a lot of off-price gear. So people come frequently to the shop because they don't want to miss the deal and they know it's always changing. So we're able to actually cycle through product quicker, change over quicker, and have faster inventory turns with an online component to it. So it makes the in-store experience better as well.

What other activities do you participate in other than climbing and skiing?

Climbing and skiing are definitely my main passion. I've taken up Surfing over the last 10 years or so
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to either get into the outdoors or grow their outdoor career?
You know, it's getting complicated. We're having to choose our partners very wisely. We've been able to weather the advent of the internet. We found a way to compete there. We've managed to weather Amazon and found a way to compete. The thing that we really can't compete against is when our manufacturers are chasing after our customers.
We had a situation recently where one of our key vendors who were holding a lot of inventory risk with decided to put everything on sale, the inline product at 25% off. And as a small outdoor gear shop, we can't compete against that. It's amazing when you watch the effects, like linear effects of what that sale does to the vendor sales in the store. And it's like guys, you just devalued our whole inventory. We have to take less risk with you guys and put our risk in vendors that are gonna support us. It's not just finding cool gear and selling it. You have to be aware of the external marketplace that you're in, the environment that you're operating in, and what your vendors' plans are, what they're doing, what their distribution strategies are.

What is your favorite piece of outdoor gear under a hundred dollars?

Oh boy. I really like what's happening in lithium-ion and power. It's incredible what's becoming in reach on a consumer level, the technology. There's a Black Diamond product, right? And I'll call it the moji power station. It charges an internal lithium-ion battery that you can charge other electronics from. It's tiny. It's like a little, it's a size of a softball.

And how can people find you? Email, Twitter, what's the best way? and I'm

Things we talked about

The Eastern Sierra

REI Berkeley

Mountain Hardwear

Sierra Designs

The North Face

Bob Swanson

Royal Robbins

Wilderness Exchange

Jerry Jordan



Bent Gate

Planet Outdoors

Friends of Berthoud Pass

Other Outdoor Activities




Favorite Books

Hawaii by James Michener

Best Gear Purchase under $100

Black Diamond Moji Power Station

Connect with Don 





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