Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters
Sam’s is a Brattleboro, Vermont, institution. Originally an army-navy store, this flagship of the three-store chain still has something of an unvarnished quality: fluorescent strip lighting, wooden stairs, vinyl flooring with a brick pattern. In other ways, it’s pretty up-to-date, and it’s cheerful, tidy, and shipshape. Being a little rustic around the edges suits the outdoorsy nature of its specialty and its Vermont address.
Founded by Sam Borofsky in 1932, Sam’s remains a family-owned business, with branches in Hadley, Massachusetts, and Keene, New Hampshire, and employees that have been working the registers and the floor for years.
You get the sense that over the last century, Sam’s just grew into one neighboring storefront after another. Now it slopes down the better part of a block on Main Street.
I don’t know about its claim to be “the biggest little store in the world,” but the scope of its merchandise is vast. You may need to fortify yourself as you shop with a bag of popcorn (more on that later). Exploring its 30,000 square feet will take you downstairs and upstairs, through archways, around corners, and eventually into Sam’s, Too, where you can step through its doors onto Flat Street around the corner.
In your perambulations, you’ll find racks of gloves, stacks of caps, rows and rows and rows of socks (Darn Tough, Wigwam, SmartWool!), and work boots, hiking boots, rubber boots, running shoes, skate shoes, and snowshoes on display.
There’s camo, ammo, sleds and skates, bows and arrows, rods and reels, and a full range of camping gear, including that classic blue speckled cookware, topo maps, and packets of deyhdrated entrées. (Have you ever tried freeze-dried pasta? It always makes me think of astronauts.)
Skirt the tents and the ice-fishing augers (pausing to admire the woven pack-baskets nearby) and doubling back toward the stairs to the main floor, check out the various brands of rugged, heavy-duty, water-repellent jackets and vests, including some you won’t find everywhere, such as Filson and Bergan’s of Norway.
Brick-and-mortar stores are closing up shop right and left as online sellers gobble up market share. In their prime, malls and megastores delivered fierce blows to small shops and the downtowns they belonged to, and now their karma’s catching up with them, but the online trend also threatens the independent, mom-and-pop businesses that survived earlier threats.
Not every small store gets it right. We’ve all been in businesses where the salesclerk never looked up from her laptop or the people behind the counter were too busy talking to each other to speak to you. Online shopping serves a need, but it also fosters and caters to a sad fact about modern life: we too often succumb to the frenzy of trying to get a zillion things done fast, whether they matter or not, and to the allied tendency to avoid real-life people and places with their foibles and quirks.
That’s why I cheer for places like Sam’s. They obviously work hard to stock what customers want and back it up with service. (I admit, I’m also probably drawn to Sam’s and its ilk because of a weakness for specialty stores. For students of material culture, they’re akin to museums, with myriad items each cleverly devised to suit a particular purpose.)
In Sam’s, you get a sense of place, you can talk to friendly fellow humans. You can try things on (many made in the USA, some just a few towns over in Vermont). You can see if the long underwear, the flannel shirts, the scarf you’ll loop under your chin pass the touch-test; see how many pockets are in the windbreakers; swagger around in a Carhartt jacket, pretending to tote bales of hay (well, maybe not); imagine cooking a stew in a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven, and find something you didn’t know you needed.
All those nice things.
Footwear News, produced by the same group that publishes Women’s Wear Daily, ran a profile of Sam’s a few years ago. Here’s an excerpt:
Aesthetics haven’t always been Sam’s strong suit, [Brad] Borofsky said. “If you were an army-navy store, you didn’t have to put in an amazing [interior].” The store is, however, known for at least one in-store amenity. Thanks to a popcorn machine, Borofsky said, Sam’s gives away more than two tons of popcorn each year. Each location has had one since the early 1980s — though it can seem like longer. “The funny part is that now people remember eating popcorn [here] 20 years before we even put the machine in,” he said.
“But it’s just another way to extend your hand to your customer and say, ‘You can stay as long as you want.’”
In my next post, I’ll be leaving Vermont for the Berkshires, to take a tour of the Clark Institute of Art.