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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland Outdoor Store owner Steve Rice helps Steve Shoptaugh with selecting a backpack Wednesday morning during the stores liquidation sale.

Smoky summer torpedoes Ashland Outdoor Store

Ashland’s summer of smoke has claimed its first major victim in the local economy — the previously successful Ashland Outdoor Store, which, Wednesday was packed with hundreds of shoppers at the start of its full clearance sale and shutdown.

“We’re very disappointed. It had so many positive things going for it,” said co-owner Steve Rice, as he joined three other cashiers checking out a line that stretched to the far corner of the store.

Despite earlier smoky summers and “spotty winters,” the business was “kicking in” with an upgraded internet strategy that brought sales from outside of the valley, in part by allowing customers to grade products with video interviews.

Ashland Outdoor Store was in good shape at the beginning of the summer, he said, with solid inventory, investors, capital, management, buying system, staff of nine and 1,200 video products reviewed on a newly fashioned website, but “the smoke took away our runway, and we ran out of money before we finished web development and got it rolling.”

The impact of smoke was sudden and severe, Rice said. Sales were up 3 percent in June compared to last year, but nine days into August, sales were off 35 percent. He checked with friends in downtown businesses and found they were down about the same amount. He cut orders, had a sale, reduced inventory, but “smoke crunched our cash flow.”

“What I hear from the (Oregon Shakespeare) Festival and (bed and breakfasts), is that not as many tourists are booking in advance,” Rice said. “There’ll be more businesses going out of business downtown. It will change significantly. I hope we’re insulated. We have built-in tourism with Shakespeare and whitewater rafting — and we’re becoming well-known for mountain biking and distance running.”

The pall of smoke blew in July 15 and only started thinning around Labor Day. Most came from the Klondike fire west of Grants Pass.

“It’s bittersweet,” Taylor Marie said while shopping. “I’m gratified we can buy at reduced prices, but it’s very sad to see the store close. The impact of climate is very frustrating.”

Julie Phillips said she is heartbroken by the closure.

“I love this store, their gear, their attitude,” she said. “It’s a community store where they give you so much help and ideas and do it with a smile. The line (of shoppers) stretched to the corner half an hour before it opened.”

Les Stone said he read about the closure Tuesday in an email sent to customers.

“It’s one of my very favorite stores in Ashland,” he said. “It serves the local community and people around the world. Unless something is done on a grand scale at the federal level, climate change is only going to get worse.”

Wendy Connor challenged the decision to shutter the store.

“It’s hard to understand, with the economy doing so well and this being the go-to store for outdoor wear,” she said. “It’s crazy to think this store is not sustainable. It’s a real loss for the community.”

Steve Shoptaugh, an environmental engineering professor at Sonoma State University and a new Ashland resident, said the store rivals REI but, “As an environmentalist and someone who loves the outdoors, I’ll say this is the first of many significant changes we’re going to see because of climate extreming.”

Rice said he is open to options for Ashland Outdoor Store, including selling it or making it a member co-op, like REI, but, he notes “now we had to pull the parachute, and we’ll see what happens.”

Rice said he regrets the end of his policy of donating 1 percent to a range of nature-outdoor causes, including KS Wild, Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, Southern Oregon University’s Outdoor Program and Rogue Riverkeepers.

Employees are “passionate about the outdoors” and, he adds, are variously students, employed in whitewater rafting or are establishing new careers — one in designing outdoor clothing.

The store, located at 37 Third St., will continue discounts, notice of which will be sent via email to those registered on its website. Sales will continue until everything is sold.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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