Tackle-shop reality: hard to stay afloat

ON THE OUTDOORS

Outdoors

January 21, 2001|By CANDUS THOMSON

How many times has someone daydreamed out loud, "I'm gonna quit my job and open a little tackle shop."?

Sounds great, doesn't it? Go to work in your most comfortable clothes. Put the coffee pot on and chew the fat with loyal customers who put fistfuls of cash in your register.

Snap out of it. There's no gold in them thar gills.

The year 2000 was unkind to two local shops - Angler's Hollow in Westminster and On the Fly in Monkton. Another outdoors store, Grizzly's Archery in Elkridge, will be shutting its doors soon.

The Carroll County business quietly disappeared over the summer, eliminating an information clearing house for Morgan Run. On the Fly closed two weeks ago after an open house so owner Wally Vait could say goodbye to customers. His Web site says he'll continue to be a guide and offer fly-tying classes.

Luckily, we still have some good shops out there: Tochterman's, a local institution, Joe Bruce's Fishermen's Edge in Catonsville, and The Fishin' Shop on Pulaski Highway quickly come to mind.

But little by little, the independent shops are joining corner pharmacies and mom-and-pop hardware stores as exhibits in the Norman Rockwell Museum of Extinct Americana.

At first glance, it might seem that with 47 million anglers nationwide spending $38 billion annually, money would be flowing like water. But even the American Sportfishing Association notes that, on average, anglers spend just $1,100 each year, and that includes everything from bait to guided trips.

Small tackle shops not only compete among themselves, but also have to battle the chain gangs, such as Dick's Sporting Goods, The Sports Authority and Galyan's. Catalog sales and the Internet take their shares, too.

And another player looms on the horizon. Bass Pro Shops opens this fall at Arundel Mills as its largest anchor, expected to account for one-quarter of the mall's customers.

"It takes too much to compete," says Kenny Livesay, a part-owner of Grizzly's Archery. "It's tough enough to compete against the catalogs and chain stores, but when they move in next door, that's a different story."

Livesay and partner Jeff Hinson opened almost three years ago on Washington Boulevard, between Route 100 and Route 175. The shop fulfilled a dream for the two men, who each kept their day jobs.

"We doubled our sales every year, but we can't just rely on our local customers to pay the rent," Livesay says.

So the partners took stock late last year and decided to close rather than order fall inventory.

"This is the time to do it. It's a hobby and I'm not going to lose my house over it," Livesay says.

Inside the shop is the fish tank sold to them by another shop owner who literally saw the handwriting on the wall.

Larry Coburn owned a very successful shop, Laurel Fishing and Hunting on Route 1, for eight years. Then, while driving his son to school one morning, Coburn saw a building with a new sign on it: "Dick's Sporting Goods."

"I was on top, but I saw sales starting to slip a couple of thousand dollars. I didn't make the connection right away, but then it hit me," he says.

Coburn knew he couldn't compete with a slick marketing department and huge advertising budget, the buying power of a chain and the ability to sell items at cost or below to attract customers.

"My rent was $1,600 a month," Coburn says. "How many $3 lures and $2 pack of worms did I have to sell just to make my rent?

Tony Tochterman, the third-generation owner of the Fells Point tackle shop, says flatly, "I would never, never, never suggest anyone get into this business."

Tochterman's has been on Eastern Avenue since 1916, beginning as a confectionary. It has faced some rough times, in part due to a family feud, but Tony Tochterman has paid the debts and smoothed the store's future.

Tochterman, 52, loves turning the key in the front door every morning, loves talking about the business, loves bantering with his customers. His work week is Sunday to Saturday, and he and his wife, Dee, put in 216 consecutive days last year before taking a break in November.

He, too, took notice when Bass Pro Shops announced plans to come to the Baltimore area. He says he visited the store in Charlotte, N.C., and remembers thinking, "I might as well just fold the tent now."

But upon careful study, he concluded he could more than hold his own. So confident is Tochterman in his customer base that next week he'll begin renovations at the Eastern Avenue store. He has $90,000 in new inventory waiting to go on display in March.

He acknowledges it's a hard life, harder still for someone starting out.

But he wouldn't change his own life for anything.

"Why would I?" he says, standing behind the counter, as his father and grandfather did before him. "I love to go to work."

Primitive Biathlon

As you settle in front of a roaring television set next weekend to watch the Super Bowl, your munchies and beverages within arm's reach, think warm thoughts about Greg Hartman.

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