Onion River (Outdoors, that is) Returns to Montpelier

by Mike Dunphy

The sweetness in the air on Langdon Street these days has something to do with the warming weather, but also the return of Onion River Sports, or rather, its successor, Onion River Outdoors. For months the papered up windows and locked doors remained an open wound in Montpelier’s downtown community that created no small amount of sorrow and anxiety.

“Being here for 44 years,” Onion River co-owner Kip Roberts considers, “I think it was something that people took for granted. It was always here and it will always be here. People saw us more as the life of downtown as opposed to strictly a business selling stuff.” Fellow co-owner and wife, Jen Roberts, adds, “Onion River Sports was a hub. That’s part of why people were so bummed. It was sort of like the general store for this town.”

Montpelierites can thank Jen and Kip Roberts for bringing a bike and outdoor gear shop back to downtown. To the cursory eye, little should appear different than the previous incarnation. But gaze a little longer and the changes will come into focus, starting with the size of the operation  “We are definitely starting smaller. We don’t have the ability to fill the store the way it was a year ago,” Jen explains. “We hope to get back to some semblance of what it was, but we can’t start there.”

That also means fewer employees than before and not as robust a benefits package. While the inventory should remain more or less the same—mid-to-high end bikes and gear, with the addition of commuter, cargo, and adventure E-Bikes—the retail floor will also include a section of used products, as well as a lounge area with 802 Coffee and local donuts. 

The vigorous online presence of Onion River Sports in its heyday will be abandoned for the time being, in part because of the massive effort it requires to create and maintain, but mainly due to Roberts’ community-based vision of what Onion River Outdoors should be. “What was important to this community was the brick and mortar,” Jen points out. “Online sales will be secondary not primary at all,” adds Kip, “and that’ll be something we grow into. We are not going to compete against Amazon”

That’s not to say Amazon won’t remain in the mind, if not the conversation. “Certainly Amazon is a factor,” Jen reflects, “But I think there was a perception that Amazon was hurting Onion River a lot, and that’s part of what caused it to close. I don’t think that’s what happened.” Whatever the truth, the story is OK for Kip “It reminds people what they actually value: saving a couple bucks and getting that smiley box next day by a drone, or having something like this physically downtown.”

Although Jen and Kip were intimately connected to Onion River Sports, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that they’d take over the space and install another bike shop. “We definitely wanted to do something like what was here, but we didn’t necessarily think it would be Onion River or in this space. We looked around at lots of spaces. We explored all opportunities.” Even when the space became an option, they were still dubious. “I wouldn’t say we jumped at the chance, as there was a certain amount of mess that would require dealing with.”

Plus, the challenges of establishing and running a small business has been often overwhelming and a sobering education to stay the least, particularly financing the whole operation. “There’s the traditional bank loan, but that doesn’t get us very far,” Jen explains. “We don’t have enough collateral personally to be able to qualify for the kind of loan you need to start this business. So we’ve been trying to learn about all the different ways you could have investors, or other types of loans, or guerilla financing. It’s a whole other world than running a bike shop.”

Even before the doors open, Jen and Kip are working hard to re-energize their existing customer-base and win back any that may have moved on, starting with the Muddy Onion and Bike Swap. “On one hand,” Jen notes, “I have hope that people will come back because they realize what they lost. But on the other hand, it has been four months. So we will have to do some winning back.”

They already appear successful, based on the on-going fund raising efforts on the website Indiegogo, which at the time of printing has raised $41,250 toward a goal of $85,000. Those who donate also receive goods and services, including coupons for flat tire repair, tee-shirts by Next Level, and free entry into any of several summer events. As the fundraiser declares, “You can feel good about supporting a store that supports your active lifestyle.”

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