MANCHESTER — Kasey Gidlow, manager and 10-year employee of The Mountain Goat, at first did not want to be interviewed.
“You really should be talking to Anne,” meaning Anne Houser, who with her husband Ronald started The Mountain Goat in 1987.
Since Anne had suggested Kasey in the first place, I followed her lead and talked to both of them.
The Mountain Goat, according to its website, sells “Outdoor clothing and gear for hiking, skiing, camping and travel.”
“Work hard, play hard,” is the store’s ethos, says Kasey, who reports getting in 10,000 to 12,000 steps daily, running up and down stairs, fetching merchandise and serving customers.
Anne adds, with a laugh, that by working in the store, “we’re living vicariously” through the customers — hearing about their plans to hike, camp, and travel.
Recently a couple came in, preparing to hike hut-to-hut in the Dolomites, a mountain range in Italy. Previously Kasey had sold the woman boots, which she loved, but she worried that her foot was “moving a little bit” and needed other shoes. Instead of simply selling her another pair of boots, Kasey asked her to bring in the old boots to be fitted with a footbed. “She was super happy.”
Sensing the woman’s appreciation suggests why Kasey says, “the customers are the best part of the job. A lot of locals — and non-locals — come in. They know us, we know them. We don’t want to just get you out the door with something. We’re more about making connections.”
Although the space for shoes occupies maybe one quarter of the floor space, it occupies an outsized importance. Kasey identifies it as the heart of the store, since she works more closely with customers selling shoes, trying to understand just what they need.
A mantra for Kasey and the staff is: “Listen.” Hear what customers are saying and use the collective expertise of the staff to help them. Another key message to new staff is: “Be you.” People are hired because of their outdoor knowledge and personality — let that come through.
A customer may come in and ask if the store rents snowshoes (it does), and he or she ends up with knowledge of local places to see, like the golf course, a trail, the mountains.
“They rent the snowshoes and come back with a big smile on their face,” Kasey says. “The simple, little things are what make the job satisfying.”
As for complaining customers, Kasey smiles and says, “Some customers you just can’t please.” The best you can do, again, is listen. In the presence of Kasey’s soft, South Carolina drawl and calm demeanor, it’s easy to imagine a customer who enters grumpy leaving, if not happy, at least placated.
Kasey’s first three or four years at the store centered on waiting on customers. She remembers when she was first given the task of ordering Darn Tough socks.
“I was so excited. I thought that was the greatest thing in the world,” she says. “I get to buy the socks.”
Anne jumps in: “Now you do everything,” alluding to Kasey’s responsibilities as a manager.
Kasey notes that although she had worked previously in high-end ski shops (Gorsuch in Colorado), she had not been given responsibility. She cites the Darn Tough example as showing how each person in the store is part of a team, given responsibilities that make the job interesting.
Outlets and the history of The Mountain GoatWhen Ronald and Anne Houser opened The Mountain Goat, “the town was definitely bustling, but in a different way,” Anne says. “Equinox was going strong,” bringing in tourists, and “outlets were just starting.” North Face, Patagonia and backpacks started the store off.
“Back then it was less about the shoes,” she says.
Merchandising has changed. When the store opened it was in a basement, where Zippy Chicks is now located. The Mountain Goat space now is more open.
“It was us growing into retail, but retail has sort of grown up.”
Over the years, the store — like many others — has fine-tuned displays, making shopping an aesthetic experience.
When outlets flourished, customers entered, expecting 40 percent off. As outlets began disappearing, customers saw the store as a destination. Its philosophy has never been to get the customer in, make a sale and get them out. Instead, by meeting customers’ needs, repeat business has sustained the store.
Further, says Anne, “outdoor brands have become huge, whereas back then [when the store started] they were niche-y.” Brands like North Face and Patagonia have become mainstream.
A brief foray into online sales revealed that Patagonia and other key brands did that more effectively than The Mountain Goat could. The store’s hands-on merchandising and service were its strength.
Over the years, like a mountain goat on a trail, the store has picked its way, flourishing. Talking to Anne Houser and Kasey Gidlow and seeing their easy comradery, I sense the heart of the store is not just in its merchandise but in its people — just as the customer set to hike the Dolomites found out first-hand.