After a rough year of bare shelves and a near-bankrupt parent company, Neptune Mountaineering’s new owners—of Sea to Summit’s Boulder-based North American distribution—have set the legendary shop back on track toward greatness.
APRIL 26, 2018
On a Thursday night in Boulder, hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts crowd into crooked rows of metal folding chairs amid shelves of shoes, racks of sleeping bags, and a wall modeled after Eldorado Canyon and the Flatirons. They’ve paid $5 to watch a screening of Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey, drink free beer, and get a chance at some Patagonia swag being raffled off.
The excitement is oddly electric, for a cheap night out in the back of a gear shop, watching a year-old documentary about a gruff climber with witty one-liners. But this is what Neptune Mountaineering is all about. This is the community that came back day after day through Neptune’s toughest year, scouring empty shelves to find something, anything, to buy to keep the shop alive while its parent company fought bankruptcy. This is the fiercely loyal customer base of climbers who still, in the age of smartphones and Mountain Project and Instagram, come in to a retail shop in South Boulder for advice, a latte, a paper map, and a place to hang out. It’s probably no surprise that these are also the same folks who proudly put a Walmart grocery store out of business last year.
“I don’t know very many towns that can sustain stores like Neptune,” says Nancy Jackson, now of nearby Estes Park, who visited the shop for the first time in 2006. It was the thing to do, to visit a new city and check out their gear shop, she says, but she was “dumbstruck” at the sheer number of climbing shoes and cams Neptune had to offer. She repped for SCARPA at the time and so she knew what was out there on the market, but she’d never seen one store carry the depth of inventory that Neptune did, and still does. Most gear shops sell tiny tank tops to women, she says, but not Neptune—there, you’ll find ski pants for hardcore women skiers, solid women’s-specific climbing gear, and lots of options.
The store has earned its place as an institution in the Boulder climbing community and beyond, and for no small part because the staff is full of “crushers,” Jackson says. Several current and former Neptune employees, like Dan Hare and Malcolm Daly, have bagged first ascents, and they’ve stuck around for many years more than the average tenure at a retail shop. This is no mall store with seasonal turnover—this is a heritage store with institutional knowledge you can’t buy.
Neptune Mountaineering’s legendary museum
Throughout his career as both a climber and retailer, Gary Neptune has collected photos, old climbing gear, and other artifacts dating back to the 1800s. His collection has drawn climbers from all over the world to visit the shop.
The museum used to be housed in its own room, separate from the sales floor. But things are different now, and the collection is artfully integrated throughout the new digs. Here, you’ll find handwritten notes about the first ascent of Petit Grepon in Rocky Mountain National Park, in 1953.
Gary Neptune has been working with the Dunbars to weave his history collection into the shop in a natural way. Over the past few months, the shop has been emptying the boxes and boxes of climbing memorabilia stored in the back, once again curating the exhibits that have long drawn climbers from all over the world. Atop the case are decades-old, unopened beer cans from the region.
Gary Neptune has collected quite a few artifacts from famous climbers, like this piton made and used by Joe Stettner on the East Face of Colorado’s Monitor Peak. Stettner and his brother, Paul, born in the early 1900s, were self-taught yet ahead of their time in the climbing world. In 1927, they made the first ascent of the Stettner Ledges on Colorado’s Long’s Peak. That may have been the toughest climb in Colorado at that time, according to the American Alpine Club.
The massive community table in the coffee shop area—where customers can come to work, hang out, map out a trail, or just chill while waiting for a climbing partner to show up—is a work of art. Underneath the large glass top, the shop has curated a selection of Gary Neptune’s museum artifacts, with brief explanations of where (and when) each one came from.
Customers seem to know that. And they don’t take it for granted, at least not anymore. Hardly a day goes by that Neptune’s new owners, Shelley and Andrew Dunbar, don’t hear thanks from a customer for “saving” Neptune. (They turn that right back on them with thanks for supporting the shop, Shelley says.) The Dunbars, who own the North American distribution rights to Sea to Summit, bought the shop last year from the distressed Backwoods, which purchased it from founder Gary Neptune in 2013 on the brink of his retirement. Even though the 45-year-old store has had loyal customers throughout its history, it struggled along with Backwoods as inventory deliveries slowed from a trickle to a halt, and rent went unpaid.
Backwoods simply didn’t have the connection to the local community that Gary Neptune had worked so hard to cultivate in the 40 years he owned the store.
“Not that Andrew and I are hardcore climbers by any means,” Shelley Dunbar says, “but we have that connection with the community. We would come into the store all the time.” Its last year of ownership under Backwoods was sad, she added. “As much as customers wanted to support Neptune, there was nothing to buy. How could we let a store like this go away?”
Although this is the first time the Dunbars have owned and run a shop of their own, both have a history in specialty retail. Shelley put herself through college working at an outdoor gear shop in Sacramento, and Andrew also worked in specialty retail in Australia before moving to the United States. The Dunbars have also learned many lessons about surviving in retail from the gear shops they regularly do business with at Sea to Summit.
Working with roughly 800 retailers, they’ve learned how to be a good teammate, with efficient, easy-to-fill merchandising displays, a website that features a robust dealer locator tool to point customers to the shop nearest them if they’re looking to buy and reliable ASAP refill. They’ve learned how to avoid the pre-season hoop-jumping many brands impose on their vendors.
Running Neptune has reinforced everything they do at Sea to Summit, the Dunbars say.
In a retail shop, “there’s a cascade of stuff that happens every day,” Andrew Dunbar says. “It really makes you appreciate keeping it simple, and that’s been part of the Sea to Summit business model… You spend so much time writing an order and adjusting an order and keeping that mental brain space, just to chase a maybe 5 percent discount on one order—it’s a total waste of money and time doing it.”
“It’s always been our mentality to be the easiest and best company that retailers deal with and becoming retail shop owners has reinforced the importance of that,” Shelley adds.
As soon as they bought the store, the Dunbars went to work. They pretty much gutted the place, changing the layout and appearance so drastically that customers thought they had moved. They added a climbing wall so customers could test new shoes on artificial rock designed to mimic the conditions of popular routes up the Flatirons and in Eldorado Canyon. They brought in the offices of Colorado Mountain School, so customers can now book trips where they buy their gear. They ripped out the drop ceiling and changed the lighting—and the ambiance—of the store. They added a coffee bar and will soon secure a liquor license to sell beer. Wooden cutouts of mountains, with blue ropes strung up to them, hang from the ceiling.
Their calendar is full of gear, climbing, and hiking talks, film screenings, and other events happening more than once a week, mostly free. Their next big event is the No Man’s Land Film Festival May 4, then they’re hosting a grand re-opening bash from June 10 to 16—a week of sales, promos, and events yet to be announced.
It looks like business as usual from the street, but inside, it’s a whole new planet.
Right when you walk in the door, you’ll find an attention to detail that didn’t exist before renovation. Wood accents are upcycled, reclaimed wood, and the floor has been stripped down to polished concrete.
Customers order coffee at Neptune Mountaineering’s new cafe, designed by Ampersand Coffee Roasters in Boulder. Neptune is working on getting its liquor license so it can start selling beer and wine for customers to wind down post-adventure—they’re conveniently located right on the edge of town, on the way back to Boulder from Eldorado Canyon.
Instead of using merchandising that comes from the brands they sell, Neptune makes the harness display a work of art by using reclaimed wood to show them off.
The store looks so radically different from its previous state that customers often ask when they moved locations. It’s the same store, and the same space, but it’s arranged way differently. No more drop ceiling, no more separate mountaineering museum, as artifacts are now woven into the store itself.
As the Dunbars have one foot in Sea to Summit’s North American distribution and the other at Neptune, it’s no surprise that their brand is front and center in the store. But Neptune offers a wide variety of high-quality gear from a large number of manufacturers, and you’ll find competing brands like Big Agnes and NEMO on display, too.
Neptune is a real climber’s store. The climbing gear selection can’t be beat, and only stands to improve: The Dunbars plan to bring in more local Colorado brands and highlight them within the store.
“We’re going to carry on Gary’s tradition of not just representing mainstream brands but finding up and coming brands, local Colorado brands, to feature in the store,” Shelley adds. “We knew we needed to create something in the store that would make it more than just a place to buy things.”
They want to inspire people who come through Boulder, and they want to stay relevant to the new generations of skiers, climbers, and backpackers who might be getting their first-ever pieces of gear from Neptune. Indeed, you might forget you’re in a store that’s trying to sell you things if you spend enough time there. The community feel is real, and no one’s trying to strong arm you into buying something they wouldn’t use themselves.
“Neptune’s has always been so brilliant at the way it does things, and that’s what Shelley and Andrew are trying to do, too,” says Malcolm Daly, who was a customer back in the 70s and bought his first pair of rock shoes here. Before he started working at Neptune part-time in 2014, he was one of the store’s vendors, for brands like Swix and Great Trango Holdings, which he founded.
The shop continues to be a destination for climbers to examine mountaineering through the ages, too. Gary Neptune ran a mountaineering museum in his shop, a massive collection of ice axes, carabiners, boots, and more dating back into the 1800s. The Dunbars have been slowly weaving those artifacts into the store itself, rather than running a separate museum. The store’s pillars showcase lightboxes of ice axes arranged just so. A massive community table in the café—where Boulder’s freelance climbers come to work on their laptops on weekdays—has a glass top over an array of vintage climbing gear. There are scores more artifacts hiding in the back of the shop, and Gary Neptune is helping the Dunbars curate each exhibit.
“It’s a very legendary store,” says floor manager Matt Crossley, and that’s not likely to change. People from other countries frequently come in and say they hear about the shop all the time.
What Neptune has that other stores don’t is that first-hand experience with climbs and treks customers want to do themselves. You can’t exactly list “Everest climber” as a pre-requisite for working in a gear shop, but Neptune has that kind of expertise on its staff. And that’s precisely what pulls people away from the convenience of shopping online.
“Pre-internet, there was really no other way (to get the beta on routes), and that (tradition) has stuck around,” Crossley says. “If you want to climb Everest, you’re going to get your gear at Neptune and talk to people who work here who’ve climbed Everest.”
Neptune 2.0 is everything retail used to be in its glory days, and then some: the rare shop that—much like nearby Eldorado Canyon or Rocky Mountain National Park—is a destination for climbers and outdoor-lovers.