Eastside Sports CFO, Non-Profit Founder, Mountain Guide, Outdoor Educator and Event Director Todd Vogel speaks to ASJ about the unprecedented challenges faced by small business owners right now
Ed Note: Based on a report from FEMA, less than 60% of small businesses are expected to survive the pandemic. As a small business ourselves, that is a hard statistic to swallow. With the expansion of giant tech companies and large online retailers in recent years, thousands of small companies are facing a day of reckoning. Will they survive COVID-19?
Luckily, there is a movement to support local businesses during and after the pandemic. Many of these companies have withstood the test of time and they are determined to keep going. One such company is Eastside Sports in Bishop. Voted by Outside Magazine as “One of the best outdoor gear shops in the United States,” Eastside Sports has been a staple of the eastern Sierra outdoor community for over forty years. I recently got to ask co-owner Todd Vogel some questions and learn more about his shop and his involvement in the community.
Tell us a little bit about the history of your shop Eastside Sports.
Eastside Sports began life in 1977 as Wheeler and Wilson Boot. In the mid 1980s James Wilson bought out Rick Wheeler and evolved it into a full service mountain store and incorporated it as Eastside Sports. My wife, Chris Iversen, and I moved to Bishop in 1988 and both began working at the store in one capacity or another. I became a full time mountain guide, and Chris became the manager and buyer for the shop. We bought the shop from the Wilsons back in 2012. My wife really runs the place, I just back her up as best I can.
What is your favorite part of running a brick and mortar mountain shop?
I love sharing my knowledge of the Eastern Sierra and mountaineering with customers. Chris and I also find it enjoyable to be at the helm, making buying and financial decisions that keep us going.
How have you managed to keep your doors open in the very competitive and ever changing outdoor retail industry?
Three things have helped us:
- First, as a small, independent shop it’s easier for us to pivot than the online behemoths. So, when a season doesn’t go according to plan — no snow in the winter, for example — we can quickly change our season’s ordering strategy. We know our customers well and have curated a selection of product that makes sense to them, and we’re always ready to quickly special-order onesies of an item if there’s a product that someone needs but we don’t have.
- The second key thing is as a shop in a destination area, the Eastern Sierra, we are fortunate that (in normal times) we have lots and lots of visitors to our area who both enjoy shopping in a small store, with local experts, and who also find themselves needing supplies for their trip, so it’s a convenience thing for them as well.
- Third, our staff know the area well and enjoy sharing their knowledge of the place. Internet forums simply aren’t a substitute for coming in and talking with someone who really knows the area.
In addition to owning and operating the shop, you are also a mountain guide and outdoor educator. Was this always your plan?
I’d like to say my path to getting here was very strategic and well planned, but that is not the case. When I first “emigrated” to the Eastern Sierra, in 1988, from the Bay Area, it was to be a mountain guide. I wound up working at Rock Creek Winter Lodge, that first winter, and one of the owners there also happened to work at a private school in Southern California. Later that year he called me and asked if I thought I could put a climbing program together for some of their kids. I still work for that school — having led some 300 trips for them, and I’ve been told that I’m their longest standing staff person (though I am a contractor). So, I wound up working as a mountain guide for the next thirty years or so and segued from that into outdoor ed for youth.
Initially the mountains and challenging myself were my main motivations for working with people in the outdoors. I fancied myself a mountain guide, but it took me years to really learn how to do it. Along the way I discovered that not only did I enjoy working with people in that setting, I was good at it. Eventually it was helping people learn and achieve their goals and become better humans that inspired me. I think being in the mountains can do those things for people.
Eventually my career shifted from less guiding and more to outdoor education programs — which I find easier on the knees and more sustainable overall. My clients are primarily private schools from Southern California. We do a variety of programs, my niche is mainly to provide outdoor education programs to schools that are too small to have their own program, like many private schools do. I focus on small groups, rarely exceeding 20 students. We do camping and backpacking based programs in the desert, like Joshua Tree National Park, and closer to home, in the Eastern Sierra.
You give back to some of the underprivileged youth in your area through the Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoor program. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Frustrated that my participants in our youth programs are, by and large, forgive me — children of the rich and famous, I have long thought, how can a program like this be brought to my community? So in 2015 I applied for a small grant, asked six colleagues from outdoor ed to volunteer, and the Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoor (ESYO) program was born. This is a program for kids ages 13 – 18 from the Eastern Sierra (where I live) that takes kids out on a six-day climbing and backpacking program that is entirely free, provides all the equipment, and is led by outdoor professionals.
As if your work at the shop and with youth in and around Bishop isn’t enough — in 2018 you decided to resurrect the Bishop High Sierra Ultras running event. This is a fundraiser for ESYO and Inyo County Search and Rescue. Are there any updates to the event in light of the SIP orders due to COVID-19?
Unfortunately, the race is for sure a no-go this year.
Any word on if the Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoors backpacking trip will be happening this summer?
There’s a chance we’ll be able to pull off a reduced capacity iteration of the kids program. We will be carefully monitoring Covid-19 in the weeks ahead.
I’m sure the pandemic has had an impact on your business as well. What steps are you taking to survive?
Ha! Does collecting unemployment count? Seriously, on March 20th, like much of the State, we shut our doors and laid off our entire workforce including the owners. Then we began to pivot as best we could.
We are able to meet customers at the store by appointment and do that several times a day. We also put much of our items up on a platform called “Locally”, which uses UPC codes to create an online shopping presence.
But business is off by about 95%. As important as local customers are, the fact is 95% of our customers come from out of town, and that’s shut down currently.
Is there a silver lining here? Something positive and unexpected?
I always try and see possibilities in challenges. So there have certainly been some positive things come out of this. We’ve meant to get on Locally for four years now, and this helped motivate us to sit down and get it done in a week. We are also looking to use the shut time to upgrade our computer system, which would usually be a real pain in the butt with the store open.
Perhaps you will pick up another hat? Start a new endeavor?
I know that the store will always be relevant, and I look forward to that getting back to some sort of normal. I’ll miss my scheduled outdoor programs, most of which will cancel this summer, but will pick up again late fall most likely. Meanwhile, the past five years I’ve been taking a deep dive into Search and Rescue, and have worked into the team captain position for this year. SAR keeps me constantly on my toes, there’s always something new to learn, and it’s another great way to contribute to the wonderful mountain community.
During these difficult times, it is more important than ever to support local businesses. These are the people that pay taxes and give back to your community. Consider helping Eastside Sports with gift certificate purchases, pick up and online orders. www.eastsidesports.com