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REI coming to Tampa brings back fond memories

It started more than 25 years ago with a smashed tent.

I first visited an REI store in the early 1990s. A tree limb had fallen on my tent the day before snapping two poles and slashing the fabric like some sort of arboreal Freddy Krueger.

Thankfully I wasn’t in it at the time. But the loss threatened to end my road trip through Washington, Idaho and Montana. The plan was to hike, camp, explore, climb a mountain, visit a national park, get lost, maybe see my first brown bear.

I had barely enough cash for food and gas. Paying for a new tent wasn’t in the plans. I walked into REI’s flagship location in Seattle hoping to score a deal.

For a young outdoor enthusiast the store was nirvana. Rack upon rack of jackets and sleeping bags, some of which could keep you warm in sub-zero temperatures. Canoes hung from the ceiling. Ropes, ice axes and other climbing paraphernalia filled an entire room. The gear was cool, but what stuck with me was how the store inspired adventure, even if I couldn’t afford a $200 kayak paddle. REI makes climbing a mountain or fording a river seem possible, even necessary.

A bearded salesman said hello. I described the state of my tent — and my bank account. I hadn’t showered in four days, which helped put an exclamation point on what I was willing to spend. He bypassed the expensive models and disappeared into a back room. He returned with a compact tent in a purple sack.

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He said a customer had returned it. It wasn’t fancy, and compared to today’s tents it weighed a ton. But at 40 percent off, the price was right.

The author bought the tent on the left from REI in the early 1990s. It's picture here in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve in 2007.
The author bought the tent on the left from REI in the early 1990s. It's picture here in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve in 2007. [ GRAHAM BRINK | Tampa Bay Times ]

I walked out holding the sack, an $8 thermal shirt and a handful of freeze-dried meals. The chicken gumbo and beef stroganoff were gone in a couple weeks. The shirt survived daily use on a six-week kayaking trip and 15 years of other adventures. I finally got rid of the tent three years ago. It had visited a dozen states.

The memories flooded back Thursday, after REI announced plans to open a store on N. Dale Mabry Highway in early 2021. With 155 stores in 35 states, including two in Florida, the announcement isn’t the blockbuster it would have been 20 years ago. Even so, it’s good news for the burgeoning Midtown Tampa project near West Shore.

At 22,500 square feet, the Tampa store will be less than a quarter the size of the main Seattle location. It’s one of the reasons I’m not as worried about a national retail heavyweight swooping in and putting some of our eclectic local outdoor shops like Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure out of business. The shift to online shopping is more of an existential threat than another mid-sized store, even one that comes with a brand name like REI.

Twin Lakes in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve in Alaska.
Twin Lakes in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve in Alaska. [ GRAHAM BRINK | Tampa Bay Times ]

The locals have already survived the arrival of Dick’s Sporting Goods and Bass Pro Shops. The successful stores have a niche that attracts a loyal following. Bill Jackson’s, for instance, has a 100,000-gallon indoor pool perfect for scuba lessons. The store also sells guns (REI doesn’t) and has a sloped rotating carpet where skiers can make turns.

REI remains a co-op, owned by its active members, but it felt more corporate when I walked into the flagship store in Seattle during a family vacation three weeks ago. Still, I loved the rush of activity, hundreds of people preparing for adventure.

I hope the new store captures that feeling.