The wallop didn’t hit Bob Scharton until 9 a.m. Thursday, when he went to unlock the front door of Herb Bauer Sporting Goods and found 100 people waiting to get in.
All those yellow signs and banners hanging throughout the interior and exterior of the sprawling, 37,000-square foot store on North Blackstone Avenue weren’t lying.
Herb Bauer, where Scharton has worked for 29 years, is going out of business and kicking off an everything-must-go “RETIREMENT SALE.” Owner Barry Bauer broke the news to senior employees three days earlier, but until that moment it hadn’t seemed real.
“It was a little bit overwhelming,” said Scharton, who started out tuning skis part-time and rose to store manager. “I almost got emotional a few times as people came in to talk to me and thank me for helping them all these years.”
Sporting goods stores in Fresno have come and gone. From local retailers like Blosser’s, Huebner’s, Pieroni’s and Alcorn’s to national and regional chains like Copeland’s, Mel Cotton’s and Sports Authority, the strip malls are littered with casualties.
Herb Bauer, doing business for 68 years and at its current location since 1980, outlasted them all. It just couldn’t survive changing trends in shopping (i.e. more people buying stuff online) and a spate of low- to no-snow winters, in addition to a 72-year-old owner who wants to devote his time elsewhere and lacks a natural successor.
“That’s exactly the problem,” Barry Bauer said. “I don’t have any sure-thing folks in the family that want to continue the business.”
So the doors will close in 60 to 90 days, or however long it takes to sell off more than $3 million worth of merchandise and other assets. Bauer hired a liquidation firm, Great American Group, to assist in that process.
“We’re going to sell the machines, the cardboard compactor, the elk (statue) out front – everything,” Bauer said.
Herb Bauer’s absence will leave a void in the local marketplace. Although other area stores sell guns, fishing tackle, camping equipment, kayaks and skateboards, none do so under one roof.
I always felt there was something egalitarian about that.
Some services won’t be duplicated elsewhere. You won’t be able to buy skis or snowboards in Fresno, get them tuned or even rent them for a day or weekend on the slopes. (Although, thanks to climate change, who knows how long those activities will even exist in Central California.) You won’t be able to rent a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard. Nope, REI doesn’t offer any of that.
And if you had a technical question about a backpacking tent or fly fishing reel, there was always an expert on hand willing and able to answer.
“You didn’t get the same level of knowledge at REI than you’d get here,” said camping department manager and buyer Scott Shively, a 13-year employee.
A lot of people used to have to go to a store like ours to find the stuff they wanted. Now they can just go online.
Scott Shively, Herb Bauer camping manager and buyer
Of course, the store wasn’t perfect. Prices on some items were higher than at other merchants. Also, Herb Bauer never really embraced the internet. Its website essentially said, “We’re here. Come in and see us” but doesn’t offer online purchases. In 2018, that won’t fly.
Like all retail stores, Herb Bauer lost business as more and more potential customers made their purchases online. Even the process of buying boots that actually fit your feet – an experience that can’t be duplicated by pointing and clicking – hasn’t been immune.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’d spend an hour with somebody fitting boots and they’d say, ‘Well, I’ll think about it,’ ” Shively said. “And while they think about it they snap a couple photos of the boots and probably go buy them online for $5 less than we sell them for.”
Besides the internet, Herb Bauer faced increased competition locally from national chains like REI, Dick’s and Sportsman’s Warehouse. While those stores impacted sales, Barry Bauer insisted they’re not the reason his is closing.
Rather, Bauer said it’s a combination of soft firearms sales (“Obama was the best gun salesman we ever had,” he joked), a lack of snow that crippled his ski and snowboard department, and the impending arrival of a new hunting and fishing retailer, Southern California-based Turner’s Outdoorsman, that plans to occupy part of his building and gave assurances it would hire some of his 38 employees.
Representatives from Turner’s Outdoorsman could not be reached for comment Friday.
“Everything sort of came together,” Barry Bauer said. “It makes it good for me, it makes it good for (employees in the hunting and fishing departments) and it’s the best thing I could do for Fresno in terms of keeping the look and feel of a mom and pop store. Even though (Turner’s) is a small chain, they do business very similarly to the way we do business.”
Bauer plans to devote more of his time to advocacy, mostly involving the rights of firearms owners and access to the San Joaquin River. He is a plaintiff in several National Rifle Association-funded lawsuits, including one against California Attorney General Xavier Becerra that is being petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court.
About a dozen Herb Bauer employees in the hunting, fishing and camping departments intend to interview with Turner’s early next week. For employees who work in skis and snowboards, boats, skateboards and the BMX-centered cycling shop, the future is more uncertain. Bauer said he plans to set up a stipend, based on revenues from the retirement sale, to benefit them when the doors finally close.
In the meantime, customers have been packing the store to say their goodbyes while scouting for good deals.
“We had a good run,” Scharton said, “but the last few years have been pretty tough.”