I recently interviewed Andrew Brewer, owner of Onion River Sports, on the occasion of ORS’s 40th anniversary. Brewer is enthusiastic and passionate about bicycles and his business, fiercely community-minded and unafraid of the changes he thinks will benefit Montpelier.
A bit about his background: Brewer is homegrown. He attended Berlin Elementary, graduated U-32 in 1984, and then UVM. During high school, a knee injury caused him to ride a bike for therapy, and he discovered he liked it. He soon began hanging around Onion River Sports, where Jack Nash, a bike racer who had started the store with Warren Kitzmiller, mentored him and let him “tag along on rides.” He then “pestered Nash for jobs” and worked literally from the ground up—sweeping up and building bicycles in the basement—and continued working there throughout college during summers and holidays. In 1991, Kitzmiller had bought out Nash after a 20-year partnership. By 1995, Kitzmiller “desperately needed a manager” and made a proposal to Brewer, then living in Salt Lake City and racing for a living, with an agreement to eventually sell him the business.
So Brewer moved home, and in 2000, he bought the business from Kitzmiller. The opening of The Shoe Horn followed in 2001, along with an e-commerce business. ORS Racks Direct, with its warehouse on Granger Road, is a nationwide business, so is not advertised locally. About 50 percent of ORS’s business is online and consists of three sites: one for car racks, one for snowshoes and one for cross-country skis. ORS’s total payroll is 45, with 25 full-time and 20 part-time employees. Not one to sit still for long, in 2008, Brewer renovated and doubled the size of The Shoe Horn and opened Onion River Kids.
Brewer on Warren Kitzmiller:
Warren did a wonderful thing. I have no doubt that Warren probably could have sold Onion River to somebody from away for a lot more than he sold it to me for; but he did two things. I was working for peanuts for him and he told me he would make up for it in sweat equity when I bought the business, and he did. The second thing was he was really determined that he would keep it going the same way that it had been going for years. I admire that and hope I can do that myself.
I’m keenly aware of ORS’s history and standing and what people think about it.
Even though I own Onion River, I feel like the caretaker until the next person comes along. We try to make sure our staff knows the history and legend, and that we continue in that vein.
Brewer on buying a bike from Jack Nash:
The experience of buying a road bike has really changed. I bought my first one in ‘83, and I still remember the experience. It was at the very beginning of mountain biking. There were people who thought this was going to be a fad. It was all about road bikes back then. For 6 or 700 dollars, they were all custom. They were exotic, Italian. I bought my first one from Jack Nash. He had a wonderful reputation all over New England for racing bikes. Jack would size you up for measurements, he’d pull a frame down and put it in your hands, and then you’d pick the components individually you wanted. It was magical! My first one was a Basso-Italian. It was blue. I loved that bike. Every time I rode it, I’d polish it. It was a handcrafted steel frame.
Brewer on the success of ORS:
It certainly is customer service. We built a reputation over 40 years and have to keep it there. You can’t ever relax. We work very, very hard to keep customers for life. We have a lot of people who would never dream of going anywhere else. But we are constantly working hard to bring in new customers all the time. We think of our customer base as Washington County, 60,000 people. Of that, half are from zip code 602. It’s not a changing population with an influx of new students every year. The shops in Burlington have that luxury. We try to do it one transaction at a time.
It is also our staff. I’m really proud that we have very low turnover here. Many employees have been here ten years or more. I’m very proud that many employees are having families, buying homes and am hoping they’ll be here for a long time. We’re paying much better than normal wages for retail now. We have health care, We have a retirement plan. Health care is very unusual for a business our size, but I believe in it. I sit on the governor’s advisory committee on health care.
Brewer on putting Montpelier on the map for biking:
The mayor has as one of his goals to make Montpelier a bike-friendly destination, whether it’s a better network of mountain bike trails in the area, or bike lanes, or better street signage for cyclists. We have seen some great trail systems in the past 10 years. We rely heavily on partnerships with landowners, villages and towns. In general, Vermont has huge opportunities because of its great trail systems. There are three mountain biking groups: The Stowe Mountain Bike Club, the Chittenden County Fellowship of the Wheel, and the local MAMBA [Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association].
Brewer spoke passionately about how he would like Montpelier to emulate Burlington’s Church Street model in which a tax on businesses would provide a reliable pool of money to pay for the branding and promoting of Montpelier. He noted that there is not agreement within the business community about this and other ideas that he considers positive, such as parkelets and using parking spaces for bike racks. He commented, “People are afraid of change. It’s the kind of thing that puts you on the map.”
Brewer on what he’d like to see in Montpelier if he were its “Czar:”
- Continue that good work of promoting Montpelier. We want to bottle that quintessential New England small town that tourists mean when they say they love Montpelier.
- Continue promoting Montpelier as a bike town and take advantage of the huge asset we have of having the state capitol here.
- Prevent humungous trucks from rumbling down State Street in the middle of the day.
- Close Main Street to traffic on a Saturday afternoon. When I come into town, I want to see people, not cars.
- Have benches, tables and chairs sprinkled around town.
I’m one of Montpelier’s biggest fans and promoters. There’s no place like Montpelier. I haven’t lived all over the world, but there is no place like this town. You have crazy committed customers who go out of their way to shop local, and all my fellow merchants feel the same way.
The interview closed with Brewer hinting that he is ready to take on a new project.
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