For more than 40 years, Rock & Snow has been a specialty retail standout in the community of New Paltz, NY. The college town is home to the Gunks – the Shawangunk Ridge – boasting some of the nation’s best climbing. Rock & Snow caters to climbers, hikers and runners in the area, which is home to the State University of New York at New Paltz and is just a two hour drive, but seemingly a world away in scenic terms, from New York City. Rock & Snow has two storefronts in New Paltz, one of which is the Rock & Snow Annex, a consignment shop dedicated to selling used outdoor gear and apparel.
Rock & Snow’s website lays out its mission pretty clearly: “We think the Gunks are home to some of the finest climbing in the world and we want to help you experience it. In keeping with that mission, we also donate a portion of our sales to local preservation efforts, ensuring health and vitality of the Gunks for generations to come.”
Here, store owner Richard Gottlieb shares some stories about the shop and offers up his insights on the state of specialty outdoor retail.
“Rock & Snow was founded pretty much by necessity to take care of climbers when climbing gear was very hard to come by. The doors opened in 1970. The store’s hands-on person was Dick Williams, who is a local climbing pioneer. He wrote a number of guide books to the area and was a major first ascensionist. The store was originally located in an old hardware store.
“I started working here in 1981. I was getting a Masters degree at the local college, the State University of New York at New Paltz. It turned into a full-time job at the store. There was a fire and the original store burned down in 1990. In rebuilding, that turned into a partnership between myself and Dick Williams, and in 2000 Dick retired and my wife and I came in and bought him out. Since then we have also built another building, where we have a consignment shop.”
“We are in a beautiful area in the Hudson Valley, less than two hours from the city. People are hard pressed to understand you can be less than two hours from New York City and be in a rural setting. There are a lot of farms around here and we have a nice mix of city culture, country culture and student culture.
“We reflect the community and it has changed considerably over the years. In order to remain the same, we have grown. Rock & Snow built a second building and a consignment shop and we have added new lines and dropped some big brands over the years. But it’s all in an effort, in a sense, to remain the same.”
“Getting rid of brands is an important part of this business. One of the biggest things we’ve done over the years is drop lines. Some grew way beyond us, like The North Face. We ended our relationship with them many years ago and we have ended our relationship with a number of brands. It’s not to cast aspersion on the brands, I’m just saying that it gets to a point where we can’t succeed in the role that much larger stores can — in always carrying more. It is our job to find the up-and-coming brands trying to break into retail and we see what we can do. If a brand really resonates with us, we get behind it.”
“An important brand for us is Rab. They just make the stuff you need, without indulgences. They are fashionable without being fashion. We were one of the first to take them in and we’ve built on that relationship.
“We’ve had failures in that regard, too — bringing in new brands that didn’t work. But we would not have had any successes if our predominant customer wasn’t excited and informed. If we just had tourists it would be different. But we have very informed, savvy customers who give us latitude to be experimenters. We don’t experiment at the customers’ expense – we think these brands we take on are good – but they don’t always resonate with our customers. But the fact that we can try makes it exciting for us.”
“A lot has changed since the early days. In the store, in the Spring [in the 1970s], there’d be nothing. The 20 down jackets we carried, and I don’t mean 20 styles, I mean 20 jackets — there’d be two left. The racks were empty by Spring and that’s just the way it was. If we looked that way now at anytime in the year, people would be sure we were going out of business. But in the store now we always keep things exciting and new.
“Having a consignment shop now is great. Things are always changing in there and it gives people the ability to rid themselves of things they no longer want and not feel guilty about getting something new.
“When the store first opened, in 1970, there weren’t many brands to bring in. You had Kelty, Sierra Designs, Woolrich, The North Face, Marmot, a lot of that stuff was made in the USA back then.”
“That’s nuanced. I’ve come to the conclusion that everything is lifestyle, whether it is a $750 Gore-Tex jacket or a stretch pair of pants from prAna. You don’t need a $750 Gore-Tex jacket when a $300 one serves the same purpose. But maybe you spend more because it is prestigious or it has a color or a that cut you like. So everything is lifestyle. The ‘lifestyle’ question has endangered many retailers.
“The more you go to lifestyle the less you can call yourself specialty. Why would someone buy a fleece from you if they can get it for a quarter of the price at Old Navy?
“That’s not to say we don’t pepper our selection with lifestyle items, but we are small so we have to be more careful. We don’t have the room to carry a little of this and a little of that.”
“When you come into our store, you walk in and see a huge wall of climbing equipment. We are a climbing shop and we want to make sure of that.
“In footwear we don’t carry any street shoes, even though our brands make them. I just don’t have room. We carry a lot of climbing shoes and a decent number of hiking boots and hiking shoes. Trail running has integrated itself into our shop. Now climbers aspire to be really fit. Running is part of that and we have great trail running here.
“We don’t carry electronics because we can’t be experts at it. There a million reasons we don’t carry a lot of things. We stay close to what we consider our core.”
“I have a firm belief in the powers of community. And I have a dark sense that Amazon can destroy the country as much as the squabbling of politics can destroy it. Amazon lacks human interaction. With Amazon, you don’t have community. Good things happen where people don’t mind engaging with each other, and you can’t do that online. Fighting that competition is a war we can never win, but we can not afford to lose because to lose it is to lose our humanity.
“Anyone with a small business that deals with people has to have optimism and hope. You try to do the right thing and integrate and be a community leader. It doesn’t mean you don’t have business motives, but as a community leader it is something deeper.”
“Climbing gyms have been a major change in climbing. There are people who have climbed hundreds of times but have never climbed outdoors. But they are climbing and it’s excellent exercise. They are on to something with the gyms. It is not a fad. It is a fun way to get a lot of exercise in some different muscles in your body. The gym thing has changed climbing, but it hasn’t changed us. We dwell in the outdoor culture and we’ll help people with anything they need.
“Outdoor gear keeps evolving. You realize as a retailer that you are dependent on invention and on people coming out with valuable new things. And these things aren’t that easy to come by. You can’t just go to the trade show to find it. The gear is often not that different than it was 25 years ago. What is often called innovation is not really that innovative. But I realize how difficult it is to innovate and every once in a while I am delighted to see something new and exciting, particularly if it is not overly distributed right off the bat.”
“Successful climbing shops are usually in great climbing areas. You can build a bigger mall or have a faster delivery service from your online e-tailer, but it is not going to be the outdoor experience. That outdoor experience is limited to places with the chops to do these activities. That’s a fun part of this job — you aren’t on an island, you are an integral part of it and you are a necessary resource for others to take full advantage of the natural resources. We provide the tools and help people do these things and get a broader understanding of preservation and of being happy.
“Business is a 360-degree sphere and if you break any section of it, it is untenable. You have to take care of your employees and your suppliers and your customers and your community to the extent that you can. If you let any one of those go you start to crumble. I haven’t gotten rich doing this, but I certainly feel the richer for doing it.”