Working Mama

My First Job

My attempt to sum up a huge part of my life in 1,000 words or less.

My dad arriving home from work was a highlight of our day as kids. Every evening, we’d search for unique places to hide in hopes of surprising him as he came in the door. One day, he walked in, full of enthusiasm, carrying a cassette tape. We popped it into the player and listened to what would eventually become a locally famous (or infamous) jingle.

The Backpacker, the great outdoor connection. The Backpacker, what a great selection. Action wear and outdoor gear, for every season of the year. (You know you’re humming it in your head as you read this.)

The stories I could tell of this jingle alone are many. But my favorite one is of the night my dad brought the cassette home. We danced around the kitchen for what felt like hours, full of excitement, joy and hope. I can picture it clearly. The little kitchen before my mom remodeled. The table that now sits in their mountain house. The olive green and mustard yellow color scheme that dominated the early 90’s. It was fun, ya’ll. It’s the kind of moment where family and community are borne.

I started working at our family business when I was 11 years old. I woke up on the first morning of Christmas break that year, put on my nicest outfit which was probably my American flag sweater from the Limited TOO with a pleated skirt, tights and clogs. My ten year old brother and I, kissed my mom goodbye and headed to our first day of work.

My first job wasn’t like most. My family’s business was fueled by passion, as most small businesses are. In 1973, my uncle, a then Biology teacher, was spending his weekends hiking, backpacking and rafting. He had to travel to North Carolina to get gear for his expeditions because there wasn’t an outfitter in South Carolina. So, he and my father, opened a shop.

This was before the giants of the sporting goods world like Dicks and Sportsmen Warehouse. The outdoor retail market was brand new and my father and uncle were on the forefront. They pioneered brands like Patagonia, The North Face and Wigwam. I could listen to the stories they have to tell about the early days, forever. Like meeting Yvon Chouinard at a sporting goods show in Chicago. At the time, he was making rock climbing gear in his garage under the name, Great Pacific Ironworks. He couldn’t afford a booth at the show, so he was walking around hawking his wares, hoping to not get caught. Great Pacific Ironworks, would go on to become Patagonia, a giant in the outdoor world and a model for conscious companies everywhere. These are my dads stories, and they are plenty. But my story is the one I know best.

That first day, I went to work with my dad but he wasn’t the only family employed. Two of my uncles, four of my cousins, both of my brothers and friends, friends, friends like Jimmy and Jill Walker, Connor Kincannon, Scott McCook, Molly and Trent Hutchinson and more others than I can recount here. Friends that became family, even to an 11 year old. Everyday of Christmas break, my cousin Hannah and I would spend our time wrapping presents, cleaning (because a clean work place is a happy work place, in case you didn’t know. Right, cuz? wink wink) and growing. Growing in confidence, finding community and belonging, learning how to be a successful employee and leader. It was so much more than a job. Most things are, aren’t they? More than they are advertised to be, that is.

I worked every Christmas, summer and sometimes during the school year, through my Junior year of College. My younger brother, Lewis was the truest outdoors man in our generation. The mountains were life for him. He loved the store. In addition to his part-time work throughout high school, he worked full-time during college and on breaks. He was paving the way to take over, until his death in 2005. As devastating as losing him has been for our family, we find small comfort knowing that he died while pursuing a passion.

I’m not sure why I decided that I wanted to make a career out of The Backpacker. Was it losing my brother? Was it wanting to carry-on my family’s business? Was it wanting to provide the life I had been so fortunate to have, for my own family? Was it knowing that I loved the work?

My father and uncle, opened a store in Charleston (my home) in 2007. I could name a million reasons why they did this but truly, I believe that they wanted their business to live on and I have no doubt, it was because they love me. That’s the thing about family businesses, we make decisions for people, not always for profit.

For 11 years, I had the great honor and pleasure of pursuing work I loved, in a field that is largely comprised of passionate dreamers or “dirt bags” as my dad would call the mountain loving folks in the outdoor industry who are driven by their love of camping/hiking/skiing/you name it and the rest, the business side? Well, they just figure it out.

This time in my life is marked by the 4 babies I brought into this world, the lifelong friends made, the lessons learned about people and how to be an effective communicator. I loved my work. As the manager of a small business, I was the jack of all trades, hiring, buying, training, book keeping, customer relations. Every job involved in the running of a retail store, I mastered, or at least tried to master. This variety of work experience would be hard to find in another career path where jobs are more specialized and specific. I made mistakes. I learned to apologize, listen and grow. I spent 9 of these years working along side my dad. We would sit at our respective desks and strategize business and life. We told stories, sought advice and support, every single day. It would be hard to distinguish what was the greatest gift that The Backpacker gave me, but this might be it.

Dad and Elle Belle at 5 mos old. She and Luke (my second son) came to work with me everyday until they were 9 mos old.

To all of the people who loved the store, who shopped with us over the years, who sought the friendship, community, practical advice or even our wares, I am eternally grateful.

To those who found something at the store that filled a void . . I know, this loss is hard.

It’s been special. Like, really, really special.

And I want to say something profound about the end of an era. Onward and upward. Change is inevitable. Or something like that.

But really, I’m just grateful. Beyond words (even though I’m trying here!)

If I’ve left your name out of this article, I have not left you out of my heart, most especially my cousin Courtneylove Gowans without whom, this journey wouldn’t have been as rewarding. Listing all of you beautiful souls would be a-whole-nother article.

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