Arcata Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joellen Clark-Peterson interviews owner Aaron Ostrom of Pacific Outfitters, an Arcata Chamber member for 35 years.
You’re not quite 40, so how has Pacific Outfitters been a member for 35 years? What’s the story?
I’m 39. It started in 1968 as Pacific Marine Engineering by my father and his friends (all HSU alumni) located off Jacob’s Avenue. It was a dive business because my father got his Masters in Oceanography.
Slowly, as they got into more outdoor activities they started selling them, too (like tennis and skiing). They purchased the Eureka store – used to be a grocery store – and shortly after that in like ’72, they purchased the New Outdoor Store that was on the Arcata Plaza. They loved community events and once rapelled from the Jacoby’s Storehouse!
Up until the mid 2000’s they had Pro Sport Center and the New Outdoor Store and no one knew they were the same owners, but they were. Arcata, ironically was the gun store, the hook and bullet place, and Eureka was more athletics.
In late 1990s the customer base had changed so they moved the guns and fishing all to Eureka and Arcata became more apparel, outdoor gear, more a college store with bikes.
I came along in 2002. I vowed never to work for my father – I never wanted to be the boss’ kid. Before that I was running hotels and grocery stores and got tired of eggs, milk, and bread, but I came on in 2002 to help with the Arcata location and turned that store around from the position it was in. Then I went and made some big changes at the Eureka store.
In 2009, we opened up the Ukiah location and that’s when we changed the business to Pacific Outfitters.
You are an interesting blend of an outdoorsman, a gun advocate, a hippie – But how would you describe yourself?
I’m passionate for a healthy, active lifestyle and that includes enjoying nature, harvesting food in nature – fishing, hunting. I love backpacking, kayaking.
I don’t wear one cape. I do whatever is available at the time. Right now is mushroom hunting. I grew up in Santa Rosa with my mother (who was a sheriff) and didn’t get into the outdoors till I moved up here to be a part of the store.
It wasn’t until I started working at the store that I took my first backpacking trip – it really improved my quality of life.
As far as guns, personal protection – It’s a big responsibility having a gun shop. You really need to know what you’re talking about. I needed to immerse myself in that and ended up liking it.
What is the most challenging thing about running your business?
The whole dynamic of owning a brick-and-mortar store is changing almost daily, especially as we approach the holiday season.
Actually there is no holiday season. Between online shopping and other impacts on this industry and county, it’s hard and you have to be on top of it. You have to be able to make quick and dramatic adjustments as you see things coming down the pipeline. Things come in waves. Departments will be building and then they’ll crest and become saturated and then dive. You have to figure out where you are and what you’re selling in each category. You can’t invest too much or too little.
Retail isn’t for the faint of heart. What keeps you going?
What keeps us going? Reminding the community that we care about them. We aren’t here to just have a retail shop.
We are here to make a better community which is why we started our Green Team, too. We started that in 2014. We picked up over 300,000 pounds since we started and we haven’t missed a single weekend.
Passion for environmental stewardship is part of having passion for the outdoors, and showing people how to reduce their impact is a huge part of our being able to continue to enjoy nature.
We get about 400 volunteers a year. We started a chapter in Mendocino with my brother. We’ve been able to address some real problem areas like Samoa Beach, Scenic Drive and Cooper’s Gulch.
What are the main things people come into your store for?
Everyday essentials – shoes and apparel. That’s your most diverse customer. We try to provide a nice diverse selection for outdoor/lifestyle apparel.
We also sell somewhat technical equipment and not everyone wants to be a complete expert on every piece of that so people come to us to get expert insight.
What is the most crucial element of your business?
People come to us for the experience – if someone wanted to buy something we sell, they could get it online, but they come here for the engagement.
We train for customer engagement. Our employees are the bones and the skin and the community is the blood pumping through us. If we give them the best experience they’ll come back. That means our employees need to be qualified and experienced and know what they’re talking about. A lot of our staff are also instructors and guides.
How do you see the direction of business going in Arcata?
We’re all in this together. Sharing information is important for an area our size. We’re all in the same community so the more we can play to our strengths and work together, the more successful we’ll be.
I know you utilize tech to stay organized. What app do you use the most?
onX Hunt. I downloaded it for hunting, but use it more for Green Team. It’s an app that gives you satellite footage and I use it to see who owns the property so we can contact the landowner to let them know if we see a mess.
What is your perspective on how our culture is changing due to our heavy screen time?
The whole smartphone/online prevents people from getting outdoors because they’re plugged in.
We can’t lose that passion for the outdoors. That’s what’s around us. There is a growing trend of the plug-in culture and the outdoors passion is waning. Our role becomes more important to help people know that our own backyard is better than any app on the phone.
My son has PS 4 but it’s really limited. To earn play time he has to do stuff outdoors like hiking and helping me mushroom hunt. I got him the Playstation because it’s an excellent bargaining chip. You want to play it? Get outdoors and you can.
You give kids something like this so you can use it as leverage. But people get their kid a video game and it’s full on immersion and you can’t peel them away, but it should be a privilege.
Are you excited about any books?
The Wild Trees. We see redwoods all the time, but some people don’t understand what we see in our own backyard.
It talks about the history of our redwoods through two guys setting out to find the biggest trees in the world reporting what they find along that quest.
It gets into the whole ecosystem of the redwood tree and the cool thing is you can read that book and go to the spots.
It’s turned me onto a new passion: tree hunting. This is my second or third year of really checking out trees and groves and trails and immersing myself in the redwood culture.
What I thought I knew is one one-thousandth of what is out there and that keeps me excited and energized because it will take the rest of my life.