Teton Mountaineering founder Chuck Schaap was at the store Monday afternoon looking pretty relaxed after three weeks in Spain.
While on vacation he’d had a novel thought: “I really don’t have to go back.”
That’s because he just sold Teton Mountaineering to a guy who knows the place well: Rex Hong, the shop’s manager since 1984.
New owner and old are low-key about the handover.
“It really doesn’t feel all that different,” Schaap said.
He said Hong has been handling “99%” of the day-to-day work and has been such a big part of Teton Mountaineering over the years that he, Schaap, tended not to think of the store today as solely his own creation.
“A large part of it is what Rex has done with it,” Schaap said. “I feel good about Rex taking it over.”
Though Hong joked about monthly payments, he said he doesn’t feel much different either.
“I still have my job to do,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 35 years. It’s not like a new owner coming in and wanting to change the direction. … I certainly believe in the heritage of the shop and want to continue that forward.”
That heritage dates to the late 1950s and a Jackson climbing shop called The Outhaus. (See box on 10C.) Schaap said it was over by Snow King where today’s residents might remember the restaurant Lift.
The successor to The Outhaus was Powderhorn Mountaineering, opened by John Horn in the mid-’60s. Schaap worked for him for about a year, then bought the business in 1971 and changed the name.
“Teton Mountaineering has a great history with Jackson Hole,” said Hong, who guided for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and Exum and still climbs whenever he can. “I think climbing is the main thread of the story. … Teton Mountaineering is a vehicle for keeping the climbing heritage going.”
The store sells climbing equipment like carabiners, harnesses, belaying devices and helmets, along with skis, snowboards, boots, backpacks and hiking gear.
But “we are mostly a clothing shop, and we’ve been that way for a long time,” Hong said.
Patagonia features prominently — in men’s, women’s and kids’ styles — but other labels you’ll see in the store are Marmot, Mammut, Maloja, Prana, Royal Robbins, Dynafit, Rab, Arc’teryx and Salewa.
“We try to represent smaller companies, and we like European companies” in particular, Hong said.
Schaap said a key development over the years has been the fashion focus. In the old days one jacket might come in five sizes and three colors, and that was fine. Today there’s a dizzying array of styles and a need to worry about things like how quickly the season’s hot color will fall out of favor with shoppers.
Other changes include location. When Hong became manager, the shop was located in the Crabtree Hotel.
“It leaned to the north, newspaper was used for insulation, it was freezing cold in the winter and boiling hot in the summer,” Hong said. “It certainly had ambience.
“And town was a lot quieter back then. We used to close on Sunday and for a week or two in the spring and fall. There was not shoulder season or business back then. Summers were still the busiest season, but winter was really dead.”
Something else that’s different is customer service. In the real early days, 4:30 p.m. Friday was “Beer 30.” The staff would gather around the woodstove enjoying their beverage, and “woe be to the customer who comes in,” Hong said.
“We would find beer cans stuffed in the jacket pockets,” Schaap said.
He and Schaap heard from people who remembered being afraid to come into the shop because the staff seemed snobby about climbing and came off as unfriendly and intimidating.
“It was pretty serious,” Schaap said.
Schaap said that was before his time as owner.
“We tried to behave better,” he said.
Hong said that as manager he’s hammered home the idea of presenting a helpful, friendly face to those who walk in the door.
“If we don’t have customer service we have nothing,” he said.
Teton Mountaineering has six full-time employees. With seasonal help Hong manages another 10 or 12 more in the summer and another six or eight in the winter. As with most businesses in Jackson, employee housing is a perennial headache.
“Last summer three of our kids were living in their cars,” Hong said.
Several longtimers are key to the shop, he said. They include Mike Keating, Neil Starrett, Keith Briggs and Mike Maurer.
“Neil and Mike K. have been here roughly 20 years and are the store managers and buyers, among other titles,” he said. “Keith and Mike M. are only a few years behind and fill other critical roles of our operation. It is very much a team effort here.”
Teton Mountaineering moved to its current home, 170 N. Cache, in 1993. It’s a good location for several reasons, Hong said. It’s near the Home Ranch parking lot, so customers don’t have to rely on street parking, and it’s only few steps from Merry Piglets, Liberty Burger, Moe’s Original BBQ and other eateries on what’s come to be known as “Restaurant Row.”
“We get a lot of dinnertime business,” Hong said.
Perhaps most important, the store is on the way to and from Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
“As long as the parks are in business we will feed off them,” Hong said.
Running a retail business isn’t easy, particular a specialty shop like Teton Mountaineering.
“We depend on the weather and people’s discretionary, disposable income,” Hong said. “Not great things to bank on for the future. I don’t know if I would have bought this if it were anywhere other than in Jackson.”