Ben Gronowski isn’t in the market for more toys. The Twin Cities mountain biker, snowboarder, backpacker is moving out of state soon, but when he heard about a gear exchange during a Duluth visit, he couldn’t resist.
Gronowski has gotten everything from hammocks to tents to seating pads at gear exchanges, and he said a big draw is the price. Engaging with the outdoors requires “a certain level of wealth,” he said, and a bargain shop makes it more accessible.
That’s one of the reasons Northlanders Brooke Wetmore and Emily Richey launched Great Lakes Gear Exchange, a for-profit outdoor gear consignment shop. Since March, they’ve operated as a popup, hosting monthly events at the Duluth Folk School.
They sell all-season goods like skis, camping cookware, fleeces, but they don’t consign motor-powered items — so, no snowmobiles.
As avid outdoorswomen, both bring knowledge and personal experience to their business.
Wetmore is into whitewater paddling, mountain biking, sea kayaking, backpacking, skiing, canoeing. “I have too many hobbies,” she said.
Richey is a downhill skier, backpacker, canoer, camper; and Wetmore taught her how to mountain bike, she said.
Their shop offers a way to increase economic and cultural accessibility to outdoor adventure spaces, and it also lends itself to more sustainability in the industry. If you want to try a new sport, but you don’t have the money to buy thousands of dollars in new gear, you can make a smaller investment, Richey said.
They got the idea for Great Lakes Gear Exchange from traveling across the country, visiting gear stores and bargain basements. Duluth is the No. 1 outdoor city in America, why doesn’t this exist here? the women wondered.
The concept of being able to recycle and reuse gear from the community has already been happening in a very narrow way, said folk school director Bryan French.
There’s an annual ski swap at Snowflake Nordic Ski Center, and other bike and gear swaps, but if you’re not connected to that community, you might not know what’s happening, he said.
The Great Lakes Gear Exchange creates a broader community and a regularity.
“What’s nice about Brooke and Emily, they know because they do this stuff. They can look at something and say, ‘Yeah, that’s probably not right for you.’ They really know what they’re doing," French said.
The two have a sound partnership. “She’s the aesthetic master. I build the spreadsheets,” Wetmore said.
When they started their business, they reached out to other consignment shops, they went to the UMD Center for Economic Development, and they communicated with other small business owners in Duluth.
For their initial stock, they searched thrift stores around town and in the Cities, their own closets, and then, they reached out to friends and family. That part of the investment was fun and stressful, Wetmore said.
They host gear drop-offs twice a month, and they rent a space in the folk school’s basement for storage, which is filling up.
As far as deciding what to take in, they ask themselves if they’d buy it personally.
“If it’s ripped or holey or stained, is it still waterproof if it’s a raincoat? — are definitely things we’re looking for,” Richey said.
They let people pick their consignment prices, or they check items' retail prices and cut that in half.
You can tell when sellers have been holding onto gear for a long time. “Even if we’ve only had three consignors, they each bring in 30 things,” Wetmore said.
She and Richey sell a lot of clothes, and the oddball items go the quickest — a battery-powered camp fan or a waterproof iPhone case. Climbing gear seems to go the fastest and is in fairly high demand, i.e. rope bags, winter climbing spikes, shoes. (They don’t sell harnesses or ropes.)
“I amazingly have only purchased one item, and that’s a down skirt,” Richey said.
“I’ve done a little worse than that," Wetmore added.
On a recent Saturday, Wetmore and Richey floated around the upper level at the folk school.
Items were sectioned off with "tree cookies," designed by Richey, labeled "snow," "camp," "kids."
Little snowsuits and coats hung under the latter. Nearby sat cooking gear and stuff from Chaco, Granite Gear, Thule. On the walls hung backpacks and bikes; a paddleboard leaned against a wall near the entrance.
It was Libby McNiven’s first time at the gear exchange, and she has some high-quality backpacks that have been used once that she’d like to consign. “Ebay’s too hard,” she said.
Brenda Sproat of Duluth came in with her grandson, Clark, 8, who had just finished a mountain biking camp. Even though they didn’t find anything for him, it’s still good to know about this, she said. The family are “big Boundary Waters people.” That means camping, paddling, biking, hiking — and kids grow out of things fast.
French used to work as an adventure guide with Day Tripper of Duluth, and his personal go-tos are “the human-powered stuff,” hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing.
He had some items for sale himself. Asked if he was going to purchase anything, he said, “I don’t need anything, but you always look to see what’s here.”
What’s next for Wetmore and Richey is they’d like to have their own storefront. A place to repair gear, where you come in, say your coat is broken, and you have the tools to fix it on-site, Richey said. In that, she envisions a place for manuals and stations for sewing, waxing skis, repairing bikes. It’s “creating community space.”
If you go
What: Great Lakes Gear Exchange popup shop
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 28
Where: Duluth Folk School