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The End of the Wilderness Exchange

After 23 years, the popular Berkeley destination for new and used outdoors gear says its final goodbye.

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It just got harder to buy a quality pair of used hiking boots in the East Bay. Ditto for tent and sleeping bag closeouts, vintage camping stoves, previously used carabiners, cosmetically blemished fleece jackets, topographic trail maps, and instructional climbing videos. After 23 years in West Berkeley, the Wilderness Exchange — an outdoors store that made its name buying and selling used equipment both in-store and through its popular biannual parking lot swaps — closed its doors for good on Sunday.

Beyond just a retail store, the Wilderness Exchange was ground zero for an anti-corporate, very Berkeley belief that old outdoors gear should be cleaned, repaired, and recycled throughout the community, not discarded. It may have been the only store in Northern California to sell such items on consignment. Even during the final days, earnest customers turned out with equipment to sell. They were turned away at the door.

The store also earned a reputation among local businesses and agencies for its fuel canister program, which resold half-full canisters and recycled the rest as scrap metal. Environmentalist hikers and climbers gravitated toward the store, even in the absence of formal ties. One long-lasting connection, however, did form with the nearby Sierra Club office; for over a decade, trip leaders held snow-camping recruitment meetings inside the store. "Wilderness Exchange has always been rather special," said Sierra Club snow-camping and backpacking section leader Albert Pastine.

Longtime Wilderness Exchange customers, of whom there are many, may find some consolation in knowing that the store's closing was not forced. Owner Jerry Jordan, who started selling used gear from his garage and later founded the Wilderness Exchange in a cramped attic above an antique store on University Avenue, was simply ready to quit. "I'm just kinda burned out on it," said Jordan, 69. "It's hard work, to say the least."

A few months ago he sold the building, which he's owned for ten years. Now he says he's ready to retreat to the geodesic dome he purchased on a forested plot in Placerville, where he'll run a smaller, Internet-based business selling collectible outdoor supplies of the sort that once adorned the Wilderness Exchange's rafters. Slumping sales due to the economy had taken a toll on the business, Jordan said, but that was only a secondary reason for closing.

Still, that didn't make things any easier for employees and devoted customers during the store's three-week clearance sale. For most of those days, the mood in the front lobby resembled a wake. A week before closing, people filed in one after the other to pay their respects — and perhaps snatch up an extra discount at a store that customarily matched or undercut most of its competitors by buying excess inventory.

"I've been standing here at the door for three days," said David Swanson, a customer of twenty years who was hired to greet customers during the clearance sale, "and every other person says, 'I can't believe you're closing.'" Another person enters, eyes lowered. Swanson hands over a discount sheet. "People come in and they say, 'I'm so sorry.' A lot of people have been coming here for so many years, they don't know what they're going to do when it closes."

At the other end of the store, Brian Feraru tested the fit on a new trekking backpack — with the clearance discount, offered for $100. "I was gonna buy it at REI, but it's twice as much over there," he said. An infrequent customer and one-time job applicant, he'd returned to the Wilderness Exchange for the sale, hoping to load up on gear before a two-month backpacking through Europe. "I'm thinking I'm going to walk out of here with a sleeping bag and a backpack for slightly more than a backpack at REI," he said.

Teresa Hernandez, meanwhile, was proud to be one of the store's more committed customers. Over the past three years, she said, she'd bought 90 percent of her outdoors gear there, both new and used. "It makes me so sad to see the store so empty," she said. "I love this store. It has the best deals. But more than that, this is always the place I knew I'd be getting the honest opinion."

Hernandez had come during the clearance sale not to shop, but to show off pictures from her recent 5,000-mile car-camping road trip to store manager Jim O'Melia, who'd helped her plan the trip and purchase supplies. The two spent nearly half an hour in the store's barren tent department poring over pictures on her digital camera and discussing the great outdoors. When they were done, like friends parting ways because one had to move, they exchanged e-mail addresses and sober goodbyes.

O'Melia said he was sad to be losing his job at the Wilderness Exchange, which he loved, and sad that the customers were losing their store. "There's gonna be a hole that won't be filled, I think." But he accepted Jordan's reasons for leaving: "You can't hold it against anybody for doing something that makes sense."

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