by Kris Parfitt
– The Capitol Hill Times –
The Pacific Northwest has long been considered nirvana for outdoor enthusiasts. With easy access to water, mountain peaks and all the terrain in-between, the Puget Sound has been called “America’s playground among the evergreens.”
Inspired by the 1894 Portland-based mountaineering club, Mazamas, the Seattle arm called The Mountaineers branched off in 1906 with the efforts of Alaska gold rush photographer, Asahel Curtis, and Seattle businessman, W. Montelius Price.
Their first hike as a club was to West Point Lighthouse through Fort Lawton, now known at Discovery Park. Within the first three years, over 233 members climbed Mt. Si, Mount Olympus, Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, and were instrumental in establishing the Wonderland Trail around the base of Mt. Rainier. From the start, half The Mountaineers members were women.
Anna Louise Strong, inspired by her experience spending a week cooperative camping at a San Francisco Municipal camp in the High Sierras, started the Co-Operative Campers now known as the Washington Alpine Club in 1916.
With many people out exploring the region, the rate of wilderness rescues increased and support from experienced mountaineers Wolf Bauer (no relation to Eddie), Dr. Otto Trott and Ome Daiber helped form the Mountain Rescue Council in the late 1940s.
These three organizations still exist today and share similar themes: to encourage the enjoyment of the great outdoors, to preserve its natural beauty and to promote good fellowship among all lovers of nature.
Along with these three are many more organizations and tour companies with similar goals, but the one that is globally recognized and appreciated is the iconic organization known as Recreational Equipment Incorporated, or REI.
Born in 1902 in Pierce County to Scottish parents, Lloyd Anderson began climbing mountains when he was 27. He and his wife Mary and many friends were avid climbers and members of The Mountaineers. While mountaineering was a popular sport for Seattleites, it was difficult finding quality mountaineering gear at an affordable price in the States.
Frustrated after purchasing a sub-par ice-axe made in the U.S., Anderson ordered an Akadem Pickel ice axe from an Austrian gear catalog for $3.50. The Andersons decided to form a consumer cooperative with over 21 outdoorsy friends and colleagues – each paying $1 to become a member – to provide quality gear at affordable prices. Word of the cooperative spread quickly and by 1938 The Coop was formed.
First operated out of their house in West Seattle, the Andersons stored gear and made tents until they needed more room. Inventory was then stored and distributed from three shelves at a downtown gas station garage with Lloyd making deliveries to various outdoor gear shops before going to work at 7:30 a.m. as an engineer for the Seattle Transit System.
With the increasing popularity of automobiles, which arrived in 1905, and cheap real estate found east of downtown in a neighborhood known as Capitol Hill, Seattle’s original Auto Row blossomed. Auto showrooms, repair shops and parts stores mushroomed between Broadway and 12th Avenue along Pike and Pine Streets.
Nash Motor Company was a popular auto manufacturer at the time and had over five showrooms along the Pike-Pine corridor. One particular building was designed to be a showroom and repair shop with an auto-ramp between floors. It was located at 1525 11th Ave.
Over the years, the Recreational Equipment Cooperative moved to various locations. In 1955 the Andersons hired a promising young mountaineer named Jim Whitaker – who not only field tested much of their gear and showed an aptitude for business, but also became the first American to summit Mt. Everest – to be their first employee. With Whitaker at the helm, The Coop became Recreational Equipment Incorporated and moved to the Nash Motor Company’s building in 1963.
REI occupied the old garage for 30 years and became well known in outdoor adventure circles for the unique smell of creosote painted wood timbers. As the business grew, so did its range of gear, so much so that REI became known as the “everything store for anything to do with being outside.”
Despite its growth and popularity, REI is considered a unique company in the history of outdoor gear providers. It has remained a coop, avoiding the buyout of giant corporations like many of their suppliers and competitors. When asked why Anderson didn’t start a for-profit business, the member whose number is 1 (Mrs. Anderson is number 2 and Whitaker 3), answered “REI is a co-op and it oughta stay that way. I never thought a man should make money off his friends.”
Whittaker called the store “A great meeting place. The customers were all climbers,” he said. “We were talking about nothing but the outdoors: ‘Where are you going this weekend?’ That kind of stuff. At the time the co-op was the only store of its kind in the United States that had real mountaineering gear.”
Despite its humble beginnings, REI has grown to be the world’s largest member-owned consumer cooperative boasting more than 1.4 million members. Today the new flagship store, built in 1996, occupies 100,000 square feet on 222 Yale St. in the Cascade neighborhood of Seattle.
After REI left the old Nash auto showroom building, Value Village moved in. Founded by the grandson of Ben Ellison who started the Salvation Army stores in the 1930s, Bill Ellison opened his first store in San Francisco in 1954. By the 1970s, Value Village became a chain (Savors, Inc) and Ellison moved the headquarters to Seattle. Ellison started his thrift stores with the purpose of benefiting local communities through charity alliances and recycling efforts. In the past decade his stores have paid out more than $1 billion to local non-profits.