Though Boulder has long been established in the outdoor industry, the heart of the outdoor retailer community wasn’t always on Pearl Street. Credit: Jessica Mordacq

The coronavirus pandemic was devastating for many downtown Boulder businesses, but at least one sector appears to be vibrant: outdoor retailers. 

The City of Boulder is home to an estimated 47 stores that sell gear, clothing and equipment to hikers, runners, bikers, skiers and other outdoor recreationists. That’s more than four times the number of grocery stores, for comparison. Twenty are on the 800-1800 blocks of Pearl Street — more, if you count specialty stores like Bison Tactical’s hunting gear and fishing supply shop Front Range Anglers, plus others on the periphery of the pedestrian walkway. 

And still, the Pearl Street Mall’s collection of these shops keeps growing — especially east of 14th Street. 

Four of the 10 outdoor retailers on that stretch — Backcountry, Black Diamond Equipment, Himali and Stio — opened last year and are all chains. 

Now, high-end outerwear company Arc’teryx will join that crop, at 1600 Pearl Street, when it opens its doors with grand-opening celebrations Sept. 16-25. 

The popular international chain was founded at the base of North Vancouver’s Coast Mountains in 1989. It now has more than 160 brand stores worldwide. When deciding where to open next, Arc’teryx said it considers a location’s proximity to mountains, outdoor enthusiasts and foot traffic. 

“It felt like the ideal spot,” Mario Burciaga, Arc’teryx’s community marketing manager for the U.S. central region, told Boulder Reporting Lab about the Pearl Street location. “It’s a street frequented by both locals and visitors, and it’s the heart of Boulder, lined with like-minded retailers and outlets.”

Boulder’s proximity to all trail levels has long offered opportunity for outdoor retailers — perhaps never more so than during the pandemic, when many turned to outdoor activities for mental health and other benefits. As locals flocked outside, they also frequented these outdoor businesses in record numbers, according to Kegan McNutt, a broker associate at real estate agency Gibbons White. McNutt works with real estate investment firm Unico Properties, which manages the properties of Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, Himali and Patagonia on Pearl Street.

“We were getting feedback directly from [outdoor retail] tenants that their business downtown has never done better since the start of Covid-19,” McNutt said.

According to City of Boulder sales tax reports, businesses on the Pearl Street Mall saw sales increase 1.3% in 2021 (the most recently available data) from 2019. Across the city, apparel industries rose 3.2% and general retail rose 34.9%. In total, Boulder’s sales tax revenue increased 34.2%. The city’s sales tax revenue reports do not break out outdoor retailers.

Boulder as outdoor retailer: ‘from the outdoors being necessary for survival to recreational opportunity’

Boulder has always been an incubator city for outdoor gear shops, long before global retail chains entered the scene. 

In Boulder’s early days, people sold tools and equipment that supported the survival and outdoor livelihoods of early pioneers. Farming, mining and ranching drew Trent Bush’s family to the area five generations ago, he said. And Bush’s father became one of the first employees at the famed sew-it-yourself outdoor gear company Frostline in the 1960s, Bush noted, citing a family commitment to outdoor life.

Bush joined his family’s line of work at 14, taking a job at Wave Rave. The small specialty snowboard shop on Pearl Street was a little sibling of sorts to the renowned store in Mammoth Lakes, California. He then designed clothes for Burton and co-created his own outerwear line with his brother. Today, he runs outdoor clothing brand Artilect, available online and at five small locations in Colorado, which he founded in July 2020 out of his upstairs office on the Pearl Street Mall. 

“It changed over time,” Bush said of how locals interacted with Boulder’s outdoors, “from the outdoors being necessary for survival to recreational opportunity.” 

Though Boulder was established in the outdoor industry, the heart of this community wasn’t always on Pearl Street.

Starting in the late 1950s, Boulder County-founded retailers Gerry Outdoors and Frostline settled into the University Hill neighborhood, a then-hub for local climbers and skiers to shop for equipment, in part a product of the student population. Holubar Mountaineering, a company started by husband and wife Alice and LeRoy Holubar in 1946, initially sold imported ski and hiking boots, ice axes and other goods out of their house behind Boulder High School. It also contributed to the early rise of outdoor retail in town near CU Boulder’s campus. 

But as Boulder grew, and Pearl Street became a pedestrian mall in 1977, the hotbed of outdoor retailers shifted location.

“We sort of laugh every time a new business comes in and it’s outdoor apparel,” said Chip, CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership. Credit: Boulder Reporting Lab

The draw of Pearl Street and its East End 

Boulder is positioned well for outdoor retailers, partially because it attracts visitors from all over the world. 

“It makes a lot of sense for Pearl Street and the surrounding areas to be the epicenter of outdoor apparel retail,” said Chip, the CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership, a nonprofit organization that represents businesses on the Pearl Street Mall, due to the proximity to the Rockies, local trails, to Denver, the university and the tourists on the mall. 

Arc’teryx chose to put its newest store on Pearl Street for that reason, which is a few doors from Patagonia, to maximize customer traffic. 

“Some of these retailers … do target being next to other outdoor brands because they share all the same customers,” McNutt said. And smaller brands, like Stio and Backcountry, are often drawn to larger, international outdoor retailers that attract visitors from around the world who recognize their brands. 

Some, including Chip, have a slightly more skeptical take. “I do think a lot of local, independent businesses here have to work a little harder to create a niche of their own,” he said, to not be made invisible by larger brands.  

To even the playing field on Pearl Street, McNutt said Unico Properties tries to create a tenant mix of local and national outdoor brands, as well as other retail and restaurants. Whole Sol Blend Bar in Unico’s property at 1420 Street, for example, caters to outdoor enthusiasts.

“We sort of laugh every time a new business comes in and it’s outdoor apparel,” Chip said. “But, in a lot of ways, it’s creating anchors for other great retail to be successful.” That’s becoming more obvious on Pearl Street’s East End, he added. 

Montbell’s 2012 opening at 1500 Pearl Street marked the start of the shift. Patagonia wasn’t far behind, first opening at 1212 Pearl Street before moving to a space around three times that location’s size at 1630 Pearl Street in 2019. 

“I think we’re about to see a renaissance down there of a variety of new, exciting businesses,” Chip said of the emerging sub-district on East Pearl Street. “We’ve got an amazing food epicenter on the West end with restaurants, and now the East end is coming into its own and developing an identity.” 

Will outdoor retailers over-saturate the market? 

With all the high-end outdoor retailers in one place, it can feel as though Pearl Street is becoming the Fifth Avenue of gear, but with expensive insulated down jackets and fleece-lined hats in lieu of luxury department stores. And only time will tell whether they can all  be successful long term on Pearl Street, especially the small retailers. 

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, international company Red Fox Outdoor Equipment went out of business on Pearl Street, and the local Vecchio’s Bicicletteria moved from Pearl Street (where it had been since 2000) to Iris Avenue.

“If there were too many, I don’t think we’d have the activity [in terms of interest] that we do from other outdoor brands that aren’t on the mall yet,” McNutt said. Unico Properties is in talks with other outdoor brands to fill their current property vacancies, he said.

Bush, the fifth-generation Boulderite and Artilect founder, said he believes there’s a place for all kinds of businesses on Pearl Street, both local and national companies, and the market will decide when that no longer rings true. “If there becomes a point of over-saturation, it will become pretty evident,” he said. In the same way restaurants have come and gone on Pearl Street, a similar cycle has occurred with retailers over the last several decades, he added.

Outdoor retailers, Bush said, that “find a way to become a part of the community, give back and attract customers that they can support, they’ll be the ones that succeed.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Arc’teryx’s address as 1468 Pearl Street. It’s at 1600 Pearl Street.

Jessica Mordacq

I’m a contributor to the Boulder Reporting Lab focused on food, restaurants, local business and more. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, I graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and have previously written for various trade and lifestyle magazines.

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7 Comments

  1. Hmm, it sounds like no one cares much that large swaths of the mall now cater almost exclusively to the wealthy and those international businesses seeking tax write offs. No wonder many of us locals avoid it anymore since it’s no longer relevant to our lives. This is just brand name capitalism at it’s worst. It’s destroying what little local ecosystem we have remaining. Is there really no community outcry over this?

  2. The stores for international brands are expensive billboards. The rents are too damn high on and around the mall. Eventually it’ll be half banks, half empty outdoor retailers. Local business be damned.

  3. Homogeneity never is a good thing when it comes to developing a thriving, unique downtown area. Even the “playing field?” If Unico Properties was truly interested in creating a tenant mix of local and national brands on the Pearl Street Mall, it would not have kicked out one of Boulder’s premier destination shops at 1421 Pearl Street, the Boulder Arts & Crafts Gallery, an icon on the mall for nearly fifty years.

    Unfortunately, rents being charged for downtown properties by these non-local real estate behemoths are beyond exorbitant ($25,000+ a month??), so local independent shops are being forced out of the downtown area, and the Downtown Boulder Partnership doesn’t seem to give a fig.

    If you enjoy strolling through downtown Boulder and seeing every other storefront pushing super expensive down jackets and gear, so be it. If you miss places like the Boulder Arts & Crafts Gallery, one of the oldest art cooperatives in the country, you have my deepest sympathies.

    Chip, CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership, “sort of laughs” every time another outdoor apparel shop opens downtown. I have news for Chip! Many who have lived in Boulder for years, and who appreciated and supported the local shops aren’t laughing one bit. Neither are the artists who lost their home (and livelihood) at Boulder Arts & Crafts.

    1. Joan, what can the community do about it? Does Downtown Boulder Partnership have absolute control? Does City Council have any say? What are the levers here? The Pearl Street Mall is becoming more boring every time I go there (which is infrequently), and is nothing but tourists whenever I’m there. The city says they rely on local support to keep the mall thriving, but who can afford to shop there?

      1. Roxanne, you pose very good questions! I’m unsure what the levers are, as I’m not well-versed in the workings of city politics. Agree wholeheartedly the mall has become boring and unaffordable. Perhaps this is simply the natural evolution of downtown areas in affluent communities? Free enterprise at work?

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