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Where there was smoke, there's now a fire sale

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Ashland’s summer of smoke has claimed its first major victim in the local economy — the previously successful Ashland Outdoor Store on Third Street which was packed Wednesday with hundreds of shoppers at the start of a clearance sale and shutdown announced on social media Tuesday evening.

“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 out of the Rogue Valley, in part by allowing customers to grade products with video interviews.

The store was founded by Steve Rowe in 1994. He died of a heart attack in 2014.

The store was in good shape at the beginning of the summer, Rice 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 pall of smoke blew in after a July 15 thunderstorm system passed through the are area, igniting multiple fires, and only started thinning around Labor Day.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Taylor Marie. “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.”

Shopper Julie Phillips said, “It’s a sad story. I’m heartbroken because I love this store, their gear, their attitude. 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.”

On reading an email to customers announcing the closure Tuesday night, shopper Les Stone said, “I was so sad. It’s one of my very favorite stores in Ashland. 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.”

Shopper Wendy Connor challenged the decision to shutter, noting, “It’s hard to understand, with the economy doing so well and this being the go-to store for outdoor wear. It’s crazy to think this store is not sustainable. It’s a real loss for the community.”

Shopper Steve Shoptaugh, an environmental engineering professor at Sonoma State University and new Ashland resident said the store rivals famed outdoor gear cooperative 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 (severe heat, drought, wind etc.).”

The impact of smoke was sudden and severe, says Rice, with sales 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 business and found they were down about the same amount. He cut orders, had a sale and reduced inventory but “smoke crunched our cash flow.”

For Ashland, he says, “What I hear from the (Oregon Shakespeare) Festival and B&Bs is that not as many tourists are booking in advance 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.”

He added, “I know of three more, if not more, businesses” on the verge of going under here. 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 says 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, the Southern Oregon University 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 on Third at Lithia Way will continue discounted sales until all stock is gone.

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

Andy Atkinson / Daily TidingsClosing signs were hung at the Ashland Outdoor Store’s liquidation sale Wednesday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Daily TidingsCustomers browse the Ashland Outdoor Store Wednesday morning for their liquidation sale.