Fifty-year-old Don Bushey can’t sit still. His hands zigzag back and forth across his desk as he talks about his love for climbing and skiing. “There are few places in world where you can live in a metropolitan city, and have such good access to climbing and the mountains,” he says about Denver.
Despite his busy schedule as shop owner of the Wilderness Exchange (wildernessx.com), he still gets outside two to three days a week, takes annual trips to the Sierra Nevada, and has glommed onto a new passion: surfing. The week we talk to him he’s planning on climbing in Eldorado Canyon on Saturday and skiing in the Indian Peaks on Sunday. Other times, he works in massive pushes, logging 60 to 80 hours a week when he’s focusing on business development. Over the past 18 years, he’s grown his popular Denver shop from a small consignment business to a brick-and-mortar location and a dynamic online store. He describes it as a shop for frugal outdoor enthusiasts, which runs the gamut from hardcore athletes to tenative newbies who may not want to spend too heavily on gear. Bushey talked to us about what it took to turn his dream of building an outdoor retail shop into a reality, how others can follow in his footsteps and what happens when you transform your business into a vibrant community.
Why did you open the Wilderness Exchange?
I worked for REI from 1990 to 1991. That was my first retail job. Then I worked at the Wilderness Exchange in Berkeley from 1994 to 1998. I opened the shop here in 2000 because Denver had nothing like it and I knew the model would work well here. I wanted to combine my love for mountain sports with my budding career. I spent the first year living in the building and for a period of time I lived in the closet—it was heaven. I knew I made it when, after a year, I was able to afford an apartment in Boulder.
What was your vision for the store?
When I moved here, I had minimal savings, a stack of credit cards and a closet full of used gear. I came to Denver because I heard REI was opening its flagship store just down the street from where my shop is now. I envisioned that the future of the Platte and 15th neighborhood could be similar to what I knew back in Berkeley: It could grow into a vibrant community of symbiotic outdoor businesses.
Any times of doubt?
The entire first year [big laugh]. At the time, I had only two other employees who helped me to get the shop ready for business, and the neighbors watched us prepare morning, noon and night. When we finally put out the open sign for the first time they applauded us. I started crying. It was intense. We’d worked all night and I was sleep deprived, so maybe that state contributed to my tears.
What exactly is the Wilderness Exchange?
We combine the best of three different business models: We offer a full-line backcountry ski and climbing shop, we’re a consignment shop and we’re a factory outlet. We carry core outdoor goods that might be discontinued or cosmetically blemished that we can sell at a discount. But all the gear is of the highest quality. We’re always evolving. And you can’t replicate our in-store experience. However, we also have an online store that makes up about 35 percent of our sales. Our staff is made up of skiers, climbers and other outdoor junkies. It always has been and always will be. Our motto has always been “making getting into the outdoors more accessible and more affordable for the first time adventurer as well as the hard-core gearhead.”
What are the challenges of running the business?
It’s a continual work in progress. You have to be willing to keep changing and adapting.
How do you work with the local community?
We partner with Friends of Berthoud Pass, a volunteer based group that is focused on avalanche education and advocacy. They host a handful of multi-hour avy classes that are free to the public. We get a full house at each clinic. We also work with the Boulder Climbing Community, which does trail work and re-bolting, and the Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group. And we work with [Nederland-based] Teens Inc., which takes disadvantaged kids into the outdoors.
How can Colorado influence the national conversation on public lands and conservation?
The Colorado tourism industry has already set our state on a course of stewardship of public lands. Look at the ski industry. For decades, we have already confronted the balance of development versus preservation in how we have handled ski resort development and expansion. It’s not perfect, but I think we have done an amazing job at this, because stakeholders on both sides of the issue have been able to have a real voice and an impact on policy. The outdoors is a way of life for Coloradans and we will protect what we love most.
What’s your long term plan?
I started with two people. Now we have 18 employees. We work with an Internet marketing firm, graphic designers and outside consulting groups. I’ve had to learn how to tie together a solid organization. I’d like to ultimately open another store in another marketplace. I certainly want to climb and ski and surf the rest of my life.