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Potomac Outdoors Quitting Retail Business

As owner of Potomac Outdoors since 1998, Dave Smith says the experience has been the equivalent of a business education. He is only half-joking when he says it has cost him as much as a Harvard business masters.

The windows of the MacArthur Boulevard store in Cabin John have been covered with “Quitting Business” signs since mid-July, as Smith prepares to close the store, with 12 employees, as a retail venture this fall. A consultant, Roger Baldwin from G.A. Wright consulting, is on-site to help reorganize the business.

Ashton Garafalo and Vivienne Foster, both rising sophomores at Whitman, spent more than an hour looking for bargains at the store last Friday. Both are members of Whitman’s crew team, and said they had been there many times before for rowing gear or other outdoor equipment.

“We just got $600 worth of stuff,” said Garafalo, who said she had gotten a sleeping bag and clothes. Foster said she and her family bought their bikes from Potomac Outdoors, and that she couldn’t believe the store was closing.

SMITH OPENED Potomac Outdoors in September 1998.

“I was a boater on the river, and … I used to bemoan the fact that there wasn’t an outfitter near the park,” said Smith. “We thought it would be a way to make a modest, livable income,” said Smith. “We are not here getting rich; we are very much a struggling local business.”

On the river, as a guide and outfitter, things have come naturally to Smith, who has been canoeing and kayaking since the 1970s. But he had to learn about managing a retail business on the fly since Potomac Outdoors opened five years ago. “We had a bigger retail operation than first planned,” he said. “We have been known for an extremely expert staff [but] in terms of management, we were feeling our way around.”

In the past two years, the store endured slow periods after the Sept. 11 tragedy, last fall’s sniper scare and the current economic recession. But after this past spring, when precipitation was 45 percent higher than usual, sales were down 30 percent.

“I was disappointed, but I was a manger here for about a year, so I knew where it was heading,” said Ben Oster, 22. “The weather destroyed us.”

“Unlike mall shops, we’re very dependent on the weather,” said Smith, who says the store’s location means that its clientele rises and falls along with the number of visitors to the Potomac River and the C&O Canal National Historical Park. But as a standalone business, the location in a leased house in Cabin John didn’t raise overhead, which is slightly less than that of a mall location Smith said.

“Unfortunately, the ‘box stores’ are selling everything cheaper,” said Dave George, who has worked at the store for more than three years.

The Potomac Outdoors bicycle shop operates from a smaller building in back of the store. Geoff Taylor, 24, has worked full-time for more two years at the bike shop. “I’m going to see what I can do with photography,” said Taylor, 24. “I think all of us have a bunch of ‘Plan B’s’.”

Oster plans on moving to California in the fall, and hopes to work at a surf shop.

“I haven’t even had a chance to think about [what’s next],” said George, 26. “This is kind of like our house. … I couldn’t work anywhere else; it would drive me crazy.”

BUSINESS HAS BEEN brisk at the store since the sale was announced, Smith said. Inside, merchandise from kayaks to books bears day-glow price tags with the sales price.

“The ‘Quitting Business’ sale has generated a lot of interest,” said Smith. “On the first day the line [of customers] went all the way out the back door and across the driveway.”

“We all expected it to be big, but it was bigger than anybody expected,” said Geoff Taylor in the bike shop. “We’ve gone through half the inventory.”

George said some customers were crying on the first day of the sale, and that the store’s employees have received business cards from area schools and stores who are impressed with their expertise.

Smith doesn’t plan on disappearing from the outdoor sports scene. The business will continue operating in some modified form.

“We are still hoping for an eleventh-hour solution,” said Smith. A corporation of chain stores, as well as several private investors, have shown interest in acquiring the site, according to Smith.

“Ideally, [I’d like] something that will allow us to continue operating under this name. … I’m getting more optimistic of salvaging something from the retail end, and I definitely am going to hold onto the guiding and outfitting [and boat rental] end.”

In absence of any other solutions, the retail store will close its doors in September or October, Smith said.