Partnr Profile: High Tor Gear Exchange
We loved sitting down with Seth and Erin and learning about their journey of opening High Tor Gear Exchange in Charlottesville, Virginia.
When did you become hooked on the outdoors?
I grew up pretty close to Great Falls Park and Riverbend Park in Northern Virginia, and my dad brought me with him on trail runs starting when I was like ten or eleven years old. There were a lot of woods around our house and I spent a lot of time outside. During a summer in college I really wanted to go somewhere and be and work outside, so I volunteered with a nonprofit based in Flagstaff, Arizona. I spent a good part of the summer out there working on trails. They gave me a tent, a helmet, and all the gear I needed. That was the first experience I had living off what I could carry into the woods for a week or ten days at a time.
I grew up around Finger Lakes in New York, and High Tor is named after the land behind my parents' house. It is 8000 acres. My dad was really into hiking, backpacking, canoeing, and brought us with him since as long as I can remember. We did full moon XC ski trips in fourth grade, and canoed way past my bedtime. I remember in sixth grade getting a tent for Christmas and opening my bedroom windows, turning the fan on, turning off the lights, and setting up my tent; pretending I was in Alaska.
The shop was a return in some ways for Erin and I to get back to what we loved and the kind of experiences we wanted to share with our children.
What piece of gear have you owned the longest?
I keep my stuff for a really long time, I get that trait from my dad. There is a pair of boots in the shop–the first model of Merrell boots ever made–that were only sold in a few shops in the U.S. and he happened to buy a pair. He'll put shoe goo on everything until it's about to fall apart.
I still have my water bottle and backpack from the Arizona trip in 2005. I actually just used the pack for our hike this weekend. I feel really connected to it. I was in the Gila National Wilderness in New Mexico on this ten mile hike, and the bag my dad gave me broke halfway through. I had to take out my stuff and stash it in the woods so I walked in with half of the amount of stuff I needed for the week. When I got back to Flagstaff I went to buy the orange pack that I still have.
Something unexpected about the shop is I see a lot of people bringing in gear that I had in high school (that was 20 years ago). I get really nostalgic. For example, I love candle lanterns, we still use them, but I don't think anyone else is buying them at High Tor except me. My oldest gear is this North Face Nuptse 600 down fill jacket that I bought in ninth grade with my own money.
How did you start High Tor?
I went through the Community Investment Collaboratives, an entrepreneurship workshop, and after the program we were fortunate to receive a micro loan to actually start the shop. The funding arrived the day we got keys to the shop–we hadn't known how we would pay the rent after the first month, that loan was a real blessing. Like many new businesses we didn't know how it was all going to work, we just dove in.
That time was such a blur. We had just had a baby, we drove around when we decided to start the shop and went on little walks in the woods trying to think of what to name it. We visited all the outdoor shops we could on the east coast. Seth loves bikes so for a while it was going to be a bike shop and a coffee shop. When we thought about what Charlottesville as a town really needed, we had Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington in the back of our minds and thought a consignment shop for outdoor gear and clothing was it.
Why did you decide to go consignment?
We decided to focus on consignment from the outset, as we saw a real need in our community to offer a way to give used gear a second life. That said, we also sell a lot of local goods that fit with the High Tor experience, from kombucha, to locally made skin care.
What were some of the greatest challenges of opening the store?
At the beginning we would buy pizza for our friends and bring them into the shop to tear down walls. For three weekends in a row we just let people drop things off and had ten people there trying to figure out how to price items before we could open.
For the most part, every item we sell on consignment, we don't have another one like it. The challenge for consignment is intake and pricing, and figuring out how to research things efficiently. By the end of the weekend we'd have bags and bags full of new consignment to process. We used to put everything through a price matrix, try to form consistency, and then take photos for our online store. We had to get on average of 85 individual items through the process each day just to maintain control of the volume coming in.
What was the biggest surprise in opening the shop?
Seeing the joy that it has brought other people. Many of our friends and people we knew were bringing in stuff the first weeks we were open, and a friend of mine brought in a Patagonia pale purple knit sweater to consign. Another woman ended up buying it, and was like, I've been looking for this exact sweater and didn’t want to buy one new! Seeing that loop get closed and making someone's dream come true has happened again and again.
We had a bonfire a couple weeks ago and Erin's old friend had just moved back to Charlottesville; we were all sitting outside and catching up. When he asked what we were doing, we mentioned we started a shop in town, kind of downplaying it. He got so excited! He was like, “I got the coat I am wearing right now at High Tor; I tell everyone about the store." The amount of times that happens is amazing. We'll be somewhere and people we've never met bring up the store without knowing we are connected, and genuinely love it.
What do you see as the role of the independent gear shop today?
I think the future is partnerships with organizations like Switchbackr to bring additional streams of revenue to brick and mortar. Brick and Mortar shops are important for used gear because they act as points of connection for like minded people, and provide a real service by helping keep gear in circulation. Having a clean, transparent, smooth process of selling online is definitely the future. Gear shops are the perfect vehicle to combine brick and mortar with online retail. High Tor becomes part of our customers routine, it’s not unusual for people to come in every few days just to see what is new. I don't think that's going to change, doing it efficiently online is the next step.
Before Covid, we had a lot of events in the shop bringing together groups in the community, like girl scout talks about backpacking, photographers, an environmental art show. Having it be a community hub is our dream.
Browse some great deals and support Seth & Erin by checking out their listings on Switchbackr!
Photos courtesy of Seth Herman and Erin James (unless indicated otherwise).