Ellicott City sports store scores with customers

NEIGHBORS

September 20, 2004|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EVERY PARENT knows that kids grow fast. And sometimes their attention spans can be short.

So what do you do with the hockey stick stuffed in the back of the closet leftover from last winter, or the soccer cleats that are two sizes too small?

Ellicott City resident Eric Mauser and Elkridge resident Steve Corbin, owners of Play It Again Sports in Ellicott City, have the answer: Trade them in for cleats that fit or trade the hockey stick for a new baseball glove.

The store, celebrating its 10th anniversary, specializes in new and used sporting goods. The owners and customers of the Route 40 store say it is the personal touch that sets them apart from larger chains.

"We just love the store," said Ellicott City resident Hedy Doherty, mother of six. "All my kids are athletes. They play ice hockey, basketball, soccer and softball. When one gave up baseball, we went in and traded all the catcher's equipment for lacrosse equipment. You can just imagine, one of the kids goes through a growth spurt in the middle of the season and his skates don't fit. We can go back and trade them in for new or used skates that do fit.

"I love the personal touch," Doherty said, adding that she is greeted by name when she walks in the store. "If they don't have what I need, they find it and if they can't get it they tell me where I can get it. They give so much back to the community. They are always there to donate a gift certificate for a raffle for a school fund-raiser."

The two University of Maryland graduates grew up playing sports in the area. Many of their customers are friends.

Mauser and Corbin bought the store, which is a franchise, in 1998 when they were both 25 years old.

"We both worked here part-time when we were in school," Mauser said. "I was still working here when the opportunity came up to buy it."

"After graduation, I moved to Florida," Corbin said. "I was working as a sales rep for a computer company. Eric called and told me about the opportunity. I knew it was a good thing. I couldn't pass it up. I went in the next day and quit my job."

"Looking back on it - at the time we didn't own anything but our cars," said Mauser, who is married and expecting his first baby with his wife, Ellen, this month. "The bank took faith in us and gave us a loan, the original owner loaned us some of the money out of his pocket and the rest we paid with our own money."

Since buying the store, the two have doubled its annual sales to $1.5 million a year, putting it in the top five of the 450 Play It Again Sports stores, according to franchise spokesman Richard Brill.

Ellicott City resident and assistant manager Ken West, who plays hockey and lacrosse in adult leagues, applied for a job after being a customer for years.

"Lots of times someone will come in to get a child outfitted for a new sport," West said. "In larger stores, employees will point out where the products are. At our store we will actually help them choose what's right for them."

Customers get another benefit.

"All of our employees play sports," Corbin said. "We can tell kids and their parents about the game. We can explain the rules and give tips secrets of the sport, too."

The owners and the employees always go that extra mile, Doherty said.

"Once, one of the kids wanted a special ice hockey stick for Christmas that they didn't have," Doherty said. "Eric sent me home with a $100 stick to put under the tree and said, `When yours comes in, we'll trade it.'"

Martha Morris started the chain in the mid-1980s, Brill said.

"She bought an expensive new backpack for a hike on the Appalachian Trail," Brill said. "She had to come back early. The pack was barely used, and no one would buy it. She thought `There has to be a market for this.' She still owns a couple of stores in Minnesota."

Mauser said he owes some of the store's success to its employees.

"We have people that have been here since we bought the store," Mauser said.

Ellicott City resident Nick Carney has worked at the store for 5 1/2 years.

"I started the day after I turned 14 and was old enough to work," Carney said. "I've been playing ice hockey since I was 9. I always liked the store. I always liked coming here and getting gear here."

Carney is a business major at Howard Community College.

"I majored in business so in the future I could own one of these stores," he said.

"There is a big difference in this store since the other owners," said store manager Jeff Tolton, who worked at the store before the partners bought it. "The other owners were more hands off. Steve and Eric work in the store. They know what we carry. They know the customers. They know what people need."

There are times when people bring in funny items to sell.

"People bring in items you haven't seen since the '50s," Corbin said. "Someone brought in a machine that you strap around you, and it shakes you. Some people bring in skis with leather straps.

"The fact is, though, people can feel uncomfortable bringing in something to sell," he said. "We try to make them as comfortable as possible."

While the store offers customers the opportunity to buy used equipment, 70 percent of the merchandise is new, Mauser said.

"They have high-quality merchandise," said longtime customer Darin Segal. "I buy for myself, and I coach in-line hockey."

Said Tolton: "They are enjoying the fruits of their labor. The store is growing every year."

Play It Again Sports is in the St. Johns Plaza on Route 40 in Ellicott City. 410-418-9371 or www.playitagainsportsmd. com.

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