Outdoor-gear sales fulfill military need, sense of purpose

Mike Mazzola opened Mountain Equipment Recyclers, which sells used camping, hiking and skiing gear, about a year ago. A portion of sales supports military charities.

When the real estate market crashed in 2008 and 2009, Realtor Mike Mazzola knew it was time to try something different.

“It was kind of a life-changing thing,” he said.

He wanted a job that was more than just a way to earn money. He wanted a job with substance that provided a way to give back to the local community of thousands of locally-based military personnel and families affected by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, last January, he decided to blend his love for mountain sports and desire to serve the community into a business and opened a second-hand gear shop called Mountain Equipment Recyclers

He donates a portion of all sales to organizations that help troops.

“This was more of an ethical, emotional decision,” he said as he gestured to a wall covered in high-end Northface, Osprey and Camelback backpacking packs and rows of skis and snowboards.

Mazzola and his wife Julie opened Mountain Equipment Recyclers at 1005 S. Tejon St. last January. It’s a second-hand outdoor equipment store filled with gently used athletic equipment like kayaks and ski helmets, tents, backpacks and neoprene jackets. There are no golf clubs, tennis rackets or soccer balls. It’s a store for mountain dwellers.

“We tried to model it after REI,” Mazzola said. “It’s the same kind of inventory you would find there.”

The shop allows people to recycle their gear. They can buy at less than half of normal retail prices and they can sell their gear and get half of the consigned sales price.

“I thought the economy was right for used goods and consignment,” Mazzola said.

And he was right. He’s noticed throughout the last year that thrift shops like The Arc and Goodwill are packed, while traditional retail stores are suffering.

“We had success right off the bat,” he said.

It took some time to build up inventory and the shop still has more buyers than merchandise. Customers looking for specific gear put their names on the wish list and ask Mazzola to call when they get something in.

The really amazing thing, Mazzola said, is that they grew the business from nothing with no more than a $10,000 budget and a steadfast determination to avoid accruing any sort of debt.

“We don’t have to buy inventory, which allowed us to shoestring it,” he said.

They advertise gear on Craigslist, which is how a lot of people have discovered Mountain Equipment Recyclers. Others are Facebook friends.

His goal was to break even in the first year, but the shop actually generated enough revenue that he cleared a small profit in 2011 and was able to hire three part time staff at the beginning of this year.

Mazzola believes part of the shop’s success comes from filling the right niche at the right time. But a lot of it is also due to a more thoughtful and community-oriented business model than most.

In addition to cutting checks for 50 percent of sales to the owners who consigned items with him, Mazzola writes monthly donation checks to three charities that support military personnel and their families.

Mountain Equipment Recyclers donates 5 percent of every sale to organizations dedicated to helping the troops. People can also donate their gear and allow Mountain Equipment to pay their full 50 percent share to the charities.

The shop donated almost $12,000 last year to three charities, including The Home Front Cares, LifeQuest Transitions and Aspen Pointe. Mazzola expects to more than double that figure in 2012 now that the business is up and running. It will send donations to Project Sanctuary, Phoenix MultiSport and the Thanks Troops Foundation this year.

The money is divided evenly between all of the charities, Mazzola said.

April Speak, executive director for The Home Front Cares, said she’s bought several items at the shop since Mazzola came to her and said he wanted to give regular donations from the store’s sales.

She said the partnership resulted in some healthy donations along with some publicity.

“They were a shining example of community support,” Speak said. “They really put their money where their mouth was. And not everyone does that.”

Speak said she was impressed with how diligently Mountain Equipment Recyclers followed through with its promise to share proceeds.

“We got a check every month,” Speak said.

Not every business that makes a commitment to the organization has the same follow through, she said.

The donations have paid for themselves in marketing for the shop.

“We have people come in all the time who say they love the store and they love what we’re doing,” Mazzola said. “People come in because of the work we’re doing with military nonprofits.”

That’s how he hoped it would be.

“We wanted to create something different,” Mazzola said. “I measure our success based on how much we give to the charities, how many cups of coffee we hand out to our customers. We had a cookout here a couple weeks and we gave away over 100 hamburgers.”

He wanted the shop to be a community gathering place where customers like regular Frank Berrios can hang out and drink a cup of coffee.

“It’s great,” Berrios said. “I love these guys. I get a check from them every month.”

Berrios is a self-proclaimed gear head who always has bags of outdoor equipment he’s traded out for new. He used to go up to a store with a similar concept in Denver, but he’s grateful to have one here in town now.

Mazzola is still in real estate, but he’s excited about what he’s building at Mountain Equipment Recyclers. There is a sense of community in his shop and a liveliness that surrounds people who love the outdoors.

Mazzola has been amazed by the generosity of his customers on several occasions. He picked up a pile of three backcountry backpacks.

“Someone just donated these,” he said. “This is Osprey. It’s probably a $350 pack. This is really, really nice gear.”