Ask co-owner Mike Fowler to describe the experience of shopping at Uncle Dan’s Camping and Travel and he makes it sound like its own stay-cation. “We sell excitement – your adventures, our gear,” he says. While excitement to one person is mountain climbing, he knows to another it is walking around the block. Uncle Dan’s caters to both — and to the likes of bikers, campers, climbers and runners as well.
Fans of Uncle Dan’s 17-year-old store at 700 Church St. should be pleased with its new incarnation at 901 Church, a couple blocks west. With 7,000 square feet, the new store is the larger by far. It boasts more merchandise in several departments – kids, footwear and outerwear.
But it still sees itself as a “neighborhood store” with a tradition of adapting to the needs and wishes of its clientele, says Mr. Fowler. The store’s customer base is loyal in return. “It’s amazing how many of our customers want to shop local,” he says. Uncle Dan’s, which has branches in Wrigleyville, Lincoln Park and Highland Park as well as an Internet site, has been looking to expand in Evanston for six years, he says. While their little store on the corner of Orrington Avenue and Church Street was “in the heart of downtown” when it opened, he says he witnessed a westward shift when the 16-screen Century Theater arrived.
“It’s about the numbers,” says Mr. Fowler – numbers that count far more feet on the pavement of Church Street west of the Metra tracks than on the same street east of the tracks these days. Uncle Dan’s, he jokes, is now in a position to be “causing trouble before a movie,” as couples experience “escapism moments” in the store en route to the show and set their sights on traveling more.
Ironically, the space where the new Uncle Dan’s opened on Oct. 22 was last occupied by a former rival, Active Endeavors, which now exists only online. Uncle Dan’s began to transform the place in mid-July, using recycled materials to make it “feel as though we’ve been here a long time,” says Mr. Fowler, and to “make sure the customers know it’s Uncle Dan’s.” They treated the concrete floor, installed siding reclaimed from old Wisconsin barns and hung galvanized buckets for light fixtures.
“We wanted to be economically and environmentally responsible,” says Mr. Fowler. “Our industry has been ‘green’ a long time,” he says, adding, “Nine of our top-10 vendors have recycled or recyclable materials.” The store carries fleece from recycled pop bottles instead of petroleum, for example, and environmentally friendly alternatives such as natural insect repellent. Since Uncle Dan’s customers respect the fragile outdoor environment, he says, “[The store’s] job is to do the right thing in business.”
Besides their ecologically sound practices, the store is suited to the new economic climate in other ways. “Our products are a little more expensive,” says Mr. Fowler, “but some have a lifetime guarantee.” Just in time for the economic downturn, the Uncle Dan’s at 700 Church St. will be open on weekends as an outlet store featuring merchandise at prices reduced by 30 percent or more.
“Our customers don’t buy a lot,” says the co-owner, so the job of the store, as he sees it, is to “sell customers their favorite things.” The staff, whom Mr. Fowler describes as “outdoor people and world travelers,” are adept at this. And they tend to stay on at the store for a long time.
Carolyn Dale, for instance, came from the Lincoln Park store to manage the new Evanston venue. A Winnetka native, she says she has “shopped at Uncle Dan’s since I was a kid,” and, after college and a move to Chicago, “found the outdoors in the city at Uncle Dan’s.” She has been with the company for ten years; her husband has just switched from managing a store to heading the IT department.
When the store advertised in August to add 12 more part-timers to their Evanston staff of 18, Mr. Fowler says they had 567 applications. Among his highly qualified staff he counts a doctor, two each “power moms” and stay-at-home dads and a teacher of 10 years. “People put their trust in us,” says Mr. Fowler.
Ms. Dale and the sales team keep what Mr. Fowler calls a “missed sales and opportunities list” behind the counter – notations of things customers request that the store does not have. That way, he says, “We can track what we’re missing.”
Swim caps and goggles came aboard that way, as did paraphernalia for dogs. With the additional space, Uncle Dan’s is carrying more bike gear and clothing to accommodate the growing ranks of people commuting on bikes since gas prices spiked last spring.
The store has come a long way since two 15- and 17-year-old brothers surprised their father by deciding to buy their uncle’s army-navy surplus store after his death. They later switched to outdoor equipment, operating the store named for their Uncle Dan in a Dempster Street shopping center near the Skokie Swift tracks.
From a group of stores grounded in city neighborhoods, Brent Weiss, the brother who is still a partner, and Mike Fowler, for 20 years his co-owner, continue to launch customers into the wild.