West Virginia’s status as a mid-Atlantic mecca for outdoor adventure is the foundation for a growing outdoor recreation economy. Scattered throughout the state are independent, locally owned gear shops that go to great lengths to stock the best gear for our terrain, employ knowledgeable staff, serve as information hubs, and support the local economy.
While there are many sport-specific retailers and outfitters of various sizes, few stores do it all. West Virginia is fortunate to have two comprehensive shops that standout in terms of their inventory, longevity, as well as their economic and cultural contributions to the state’s economy and rich outdoor adventure heritage.
Meet Your Gear Shops
Water Stone Outdoors: Fayetteville
You can’t mention West Virginia’s flagship outdoor town of Fayetteville without a nod to Gene and Maura Kistler. The couple moved to Fayetteville in 1991, long before it boasted the “Coolest Small Town” sign along U.S. Route 19. Back then, relations between the granola folk and the longtime locals weren’t as peachy as they are today. Like the New River Gorge Bridge itself, Gene and Maura covertly used their outdoor gear shop Water Stone Outdoors to bridge the gap between two disparate worlds. Nowadays, Fayetteville is a thriving example of the outdoor recreation economy’s transformational power.
Gene opened Fayetteville’s original gear shop in 1994 as a third branch of Blue Ridge Outdoors, a now-defunct Virginia-based shop that Gene owned and has since sold. Gene and Maura now co-own the shop with manager and local climbing legend Kenny Parker.
“Next thing we’re setting up this gear shop and hanging out downtown, and I said, ‘This will be a great base for subversive positive social change,’ and that was always the clandestine objective,” Gene said.
The rest is a white-knuckle ride through history. Water Stone is set to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, which will be done in typical Kistler fashion with a big blowout where everyone and anyone is welcome.
Pathfinder of West Virginia: Morgantown
West Virginia’s third-largest city is home to the state’s largest independent outdoor store. Located in the Monongahela Building in the heart of downtown Morgantown, Pathfinder is the most comprehensive gear shop around. From skateboarding to skiing, climbing to camping, and biking to paddling, Pathfinder backs up its tagline as “West Virginia’s Adventure Sports Outfitter.” Pathfinder’s modus operandi was built upon selling gear that the owners and employees actually used themselves.
Originally opened on Willey Street by Bruce Summers and his late partner Mia Sieminski in 1973, Pathfinder has been outfitting West Virginia’s adventurers for 46 years. The store moved to its current location in 1993, where it’s remained one of Morgantown’s bedrock businesses. Summers has since retired from an active role but still owns the store. He passed the reigns to general manager Gabe Fitzwater, who’s been making the store thrive since 1992. “Longevity in this business is not always a thing, but you can have a career doing this,” Fitzwater said. “We try some things here and there, and we’re evolving and changing as we need to stay viable in today’s retail world.”
More Than A Store
A store is a store, except for when it’s much more. Local outdoor shops provide a far greater range of services than many customers realize. From expert advice and insider info to support for community events, these stores are the venerable hubs of their local outdoor scenes.
“First and foremost we’re a gear provider, but we’re also here to provide information on where to go, whether it’s a ski resort, hiking trails, backpacking, rivers to paddle; we’re leading people the right way,” Fitzwater said. Pathfinder organizes weekly bike rides and paddling sessions throughout the year, including kayak rolling classes at the WVU Rec Center. “We try to provide an open forum where everyone is welcome. We’re making it inclusive, not exclusive.”
Fitzwater rattled off Pathfinder’s long list of sponsorships throughout the years, including the Banff Outdoor Film Festival, the Cheat River Festival, Dirt Rag Dirt Fest WV, and a slew of events and trips done in partnership with Adventure WV.
Down at Water Stone, the business side of things is only a minor component of the store’s raison d’etre. “We’re an information hub, which is what every gear shop should be,” Parker said. “Maura and I always laugh about how we’re actually shitty retailers, but we do really well with our community. If we quit doing all the public service, community, and environmental activism, maybe we’d actually make some money.”
Water Stone has had its chalk-covered hand in just about every aspect of Fayetteville over the decades, from the 10-year run of the legendary New River Rendezvous climbing festival to financial support for local businesses and events. “When I look at us as a vehicle for subversive positive local change, we have donated to everything possible in this community. I can’t even come close to quantifying the amount of money and employee hours we’ve donated to [climbing stewardship],” Parker said.
Online versus In Line
It’s no secret that shopping online is convenient but going to your local shop and waiting in line carries a multitude of benefits beyond the sale. For starters, Fitzwater wants people to realize that the internet isn’t the defacto bargain basement. According to Fitzwater, Pathfinder’s prices are often on par with or cheaper than the online marketplace. “The worst thing I hear people say is that they’re glad to shop local even though they’re spending more money,” he says. “And I say, well that’s just not true. Good deals can be had because we’re in the same boat as the online retailers. We’re all doing the same cycle.”
The other benefit of your brick-and-mortar gear shop is the ability to touch and visually inspect gear, try on shoes and apparel, and bring items in for service. “A good deal isn’t always a good deal,” says Fitzwater, who claims that the customer getting the wrong gear is one of the worst things that can happen for a gear manufacturer.
Pathfinder employs a diverse staff of techs and mechanics, many of whom have crossover skills for different sports. “Probably bigger than anything, especially with bicycles, is the ability to service it. If you buy from us, we’re able to service what we sell.” If your gear’s broke, Fitzwater says they can likely fix it without leaving you broke.
Conversely, Maura admits the internet has been able to undercut Water Stone when it comes to clearance prices for items like apparel and technical clothing. “Although I feel like the shop local thing is getting stronger, we can’t sell a raincoat to save our lives anymore,” she said.
But specialty items like rock climbing shoes are things that, well, simply suck to buy online. Climbing shoes need a specific fit to perform properly, companies are constantly changing their designs, and feet come in a variety of strange shapes. Try to guess your size and style online, and you’re bound to get hosed.
Maura claims Water Stone features arguably the largest climbing shoe selection east of Mississippi. There’s a small climbing wall on which to test the shoes, and the staff, most of whom are climbers, are well-versed in each shoe—an intentional design that has helped keep Water Stone afloat over the years. “I decided that was one category in particular where we were going to sink and invest money in inventory and carry a lot of different styles,” Parker said. “The fact you’re getting to try all these different shoes and find the one that works for you, that’s invaluable. If people don’t recognize that’s an add-on service, they’re missing the point.”
Parker’s primary pet peeve is a phenomenon called showrooming—the practice of visiting a store to try on products before buying online at a lower price. “That’s as low bar as it gets,” said Parker. “If people say they can get it cheaper, I’ll compromise. If people don’t support local shops, they’re going to lose the option to come into the store and use that service.”
The Power is Yours
Captain Planet explained the responsibility of eco-consciousness to children in the early ‘90s, but they never benefitted from the lessons of a Captain Retail to reinforce the responsibility of conscious consumerism. Since the days of Captain Planet’s spandex-clad take down of greasy oil barons, the internet has risen as the dominant digital disputant of the hypothetical Captain Retail. If he was a cartoon on the air today, he’d teach us about the local multiplier effect, tax revenue, and job creation whilst punching Amazon Prime minions square in the jaw.
Locally spending your hard-earned dollars supports and creates local jobs, shores up the local tax base, and circulates that wealth within the local economy. “Buying locally provides a vibrant economy with interesting stores and vitality,” Maura said. “It’s the old model of a little town with shops, it creates that wonderful engagement where you’re out connecting with and being part of a vibrant town. The last thing we need is to be holed up on our screens more.”
The American Independent Business Alliance states that a dollar spent at a local merchant turns into $2 – $3.5 recirculating in the local economy compared to just one dollar spent at a chain-owned business.
Fitzwater cites taxes to explain how a dollar spent at Pathfinder is a dollar that bolsters Morgantown’s economy. Pathfinder’s revenue supports local jobs and pays wages employees use to buy locally at other stores. “If you buy online, zero dollars go to the local community, but in a case like ours, 100 percent stays here,” he said. “When people come and ask us for donations, or sponsorships, if we don’t have that revenue, we can’t support, sponsor, or even employ people. We have less employees, less support of the community, it’s a slow erosion.”
If you’re still wondering why you should consider shopping locally, leave it to Gene Kistler for the blunt truth: “So we can make money and stay alive and have a good time.”
Ultimately, the glory of unfettered capitalism puts the power of choice in your hands—and wallet. But if you can make conscious decisions that result in staying alive having a good time, we all win. As Gene says, “If everyone is having a good time, we’re having a good time, too.” And at the end of the day, aren’t the outdoors all about having a good time?
Dylan Jones has been a longtime customer at both Water Stone Outdoors and Pathfinder and did not receive any compensation from either business for this article. But, if free stuff magically appeared on his door step, he’d totally accept it.