Recycle your old gear: Wilderness Exchange Unlimited

Got a hankering for the latest and greatest piece of ski or mountaineering gear but aren't sure if you can afford it? If you've got some older stuff in your basement or garage, you may be able to trade it up at Wilderness Exchange Unlimited at 2401 15th Street. Wilderness Exchange specializes in factory style closeouts and used gear, but also carries a good portion of new equipment.

The store was started by Bay Area transplant Don Bushley, who has almost two decades of experience in outdoor specialty retail. Bushley started at REI in 1990, and in 1993, went to work at the original Wilderness Exchange in the Berkeley area.

"I couldn't believe there wasn't an outlet-type of outdoor retailer in Denver," explains Bushley. "I assumed this idea was done everywhere. There wasn't a shop with this type of mix and applying the factory outlet idea to outdoor retail. I did research, came out here a couple of times, and started looking at this area down here as an emerging retail district in Denver. Back then, there was nothing; this was all abandoned buildings. Then REI announced the plans for the flagship store and it seemed like an ideal location and I tried to get as close to that as I could."

One thing that attracted Bushley to the area at Platte and 15th was the idea of replicating the gear shopping experience in Berkeley. The name is a tribute to the original Wilderness Exchange.

"In Berkeley, where the REI and the Wilderness Exchange was, it was called the "gear ghetto." North Face started there, Sierra Designs started there, Mountain Hardware launched there, all these outdoor gear companies started there. This area in the East Bay was where everybody went to shop for outdoor gear, and this has become the gear ghetto of Denver. We have a snowboard shop, a bicycle shop, and Confluence across the street."

Wilderness Exchange's main focus is on outdoor hardgoods, especially skiing and climbing gear. While a substantial part of the company's offerings are closeout deals, almost 15 percent of the business is used gear. Customers can bring in used equipment and sell it and get 60 percent of the sale price in cash, or 70 percent of the sale price as store credit.

"We get a lot of people who come in who've tried Craigslist and they get frustrated," explains Bushley. "They're trying to sell a camp stove for $20 and they have to meet people, make all these arrangements, and by the time they sell it, it's not worth their time and effort. We're able to have a qualified customer come in and handle the transaction for them."

Since opening in June 2000, Wilderness Exchange Unlimited has moved three times, due to its rapid growth. The original location had 1000 square feet; the current location is approximately 5000 square feet.

"We moved here a few months ago, and it's 5000 square feet, and now it's tight," laughs Bushley. "We don't want to get too big. It's almost like 5000 square feet is the limit of where a shop feels small, instead of bigger and less personal."

Another part of the attraction at Wilderness Exchange Unlimited is the staff. Pictures of staff in action climbing and skiing adorn both the store walls and the online staff bios. The website also has staff reviews of some of the gear they sell.

"Our staff is well educated and has experience in the outdoor industry, guiding or working for other companies," explains store manager Curtis Low, who at one time worked for Eastern Mountain Sports. "They're a humble crew, out to educate our customers. They come from all parts of the world. I think our customers know that we have a pretty expert staff."

While the economy and competition from the Internet has meant the demise of some independent mountain shops, Wilderness Exchange has been successful by concentrating on hardgoods and finding deals to pass on to its customer base.

"I think the main thing has been staying very focused on what our mission was when we started originally," Bushley explains. "We really have a different idea here. We want to make outdoor gear more affordable and accessible for new users and experts, and everything we do has to be consistent with that message. Wilderness Exchange definitely means great deals on great gear to lot of people in Denver."

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Candace Horgan