Things are different for a sports store in a small city, and as of this June, Overlander Sports has been doing everything from selling gear to sponsoring community events for 30 years.
Overlander Sports, affectionately referred by just about everyone I know as “Overlanders,” has been around for as long as I can remember. As a kid I used to wrap myself inside the caterpillar-like sleeping bags that hung from the ceiling along the back wall, or zip and unzip the legs off of ultra-light cargo pants while waiting for my Dad to decide on a tent or a pair of hiking boots. When I crashed my bike in Grade 3, I took it to Overlanders to get it re-spoked. It’s where I got fitted for my first set of skis, where I went for tennis racquets and shin pads, where I bought my hiking backpack for my first trip away from home. When I shop there today, whether it’s for SmartWool, yoga pants, or bike tubes, I invariably learn something new — and as cheesy as it sounds — I feel special. I pay a bit more for something invaluable; the experience of being doted on by a bright and helpful staff, who love what they do and know a heck of a lot about it. Sandra and Bill Stirling, the husband and wife team who own and manage the store, are the reason it’s still around today, and if you think they sit back and rake in the rewards of their successful business, you’re dead wrong. They mop the floors, and work the till just like everybody else, and they’ve been doing it for 30 years.
When I ask Sandra how she feels about being an owner/ manager of the Northwest Territories’ largest sporting goods store, she admits it’s all a bit surprising. Sandra went to school for Renewable Resources Technology. Before Overlander, she was a government worker. Retail and gear weren’t really her thing, but then she got pregnant. While on maternity leave, Tony Chang and a group of local businessmen saw a gap in the market and approached her about opening a sporting goods store. They needed a manager and another partner. “I thought ‘Well, okay, if I quit the government, I can get that superannuation money and I can invest it in the business.’ So, that’s what I did. I took a gamble,” she says, adding the first few years were particularly dicey. “I didn’t know what I was doing. Honest to God, I knew nothing.” But despite Sandra’s lack of retail experience or business background, she pulled through, what she calls, “the school of hard knocks.”
Her husband Bill, with an equally inapplicable educational background of Sociology and Education, got involved with Overlanders mid-way through year one. Bill is the consummate sportsman. He plays soccer and broomball, he paddles and snowshoes, and he’s also the kind of guy who rescues his neighbour (me) when she realizes her boots and bindings don’t match just before heading out for a ski on the lake behind his house. “Wait right here,” he said. “I’ll lend you a pair of mine.”
“I think one of our biggest strengths is Bill’s knowledge,” says Sandra. “And maybe I just have good instincts, I don’t know.”
Neither Bill nor Sandra is particularly keen on boasting. I have to go to former Assistant Manager, Rachelle Francoeur to get the real goods. It turns out Overlanders gives back to the community in a big way. “Tournaments, marathons, Banff Film Festival, the list is so long it’s incredible. We get sponsorship letters every single day,” she says. Perhaps the most interesting feature of their current storefront (on 50th street) is the enormous underground warehouse where you’ll find rows upon rows of canoes, bikes and strollers, and — right next to Bill’s office — a giant food cache. A food cache? What, do they have a bunker too? I was surprised to learn the store’s basement is home to the YK Food Bank, a space provided free-of-charge for food bank volunteers to store and give out 100-150 boxes of groceries to needy families every other Saturday.
Another thing that makes Overlanders unusual is that it really doesn’t exist anywhere else. Francoeur is a self-proclaimed gear-junkie, and in every city she visits, she hits up the Mountain Equipment Co-op and Recreational Equipment Inc., but nothing is quite like Overlanders. “Skate sharpening, bike repair, skateboarding, snowboards all at the same time as shoes and canoes. It’s like ‘Wow! We have everything.’”
It’s true. Down south, stores carrying sports equipment and apparel usually have a few specialties, but it’s rare, if not impossible, to find a one-stop-shop for sports and outdoor gear. Overlanders has adopted this business model for a reason. To cater to Yellowknife’s tiny population, where you can only sell so many strollers and canoes before you hit total market saturation, they’ve had to cast a wide net and offer a little of everything. “If we were just a bike shop, we’d be in big trouble,” says Sandra.
Sandra and Bill, who still put in over nine hours a day and have to be reminded to break for lunch, look around to friends of the same age and see them retiring, vacationing, and taking that elusive “time off.” Only recently, Sandra stopped coming in on Saturdays. “By now I would have been retired, I would have had a pension for life, I would have had it made, right? You make those choices in life. Are you gonna go this way, or are you gonna go that way?” she asks, though retirement doesn’t seem to be on the agenda any time soon. Sandra is still excited about coming to work every day and doesn’t plan on letting up until that changes. She asks Bill what he thinks about the future. “I like working,” he says.