Last week, we had the opportunity to enjoy a special pre-Grand Opening reception at the new REI Jacksonville store the night before the official gear frenzy began. We overestimated the time it would take to get to the store and sat out front for a while, then decided to poke our noses in the door after we saw a couple of folks walk in. I think we surprised the staff by showing up early but they were more than gracious, welcoming us in and allowing us to walk around and marvel at all the gear and technical clothing.
At first glance, it seemed that the store was optimized for mountain bikers – and they are quite a strong force in the Jacksonville area, led by SORBA – but we quickly found the zone (just to the left of mountain biking) that’s a stripe from the far wall of the store to the front entrance that’s all about backpacking. Yes, we’re talking the best backpacking gear selection in Florida, bar none.
JK took a look at the backpacks while I riffled through sleeping bags. I tried on a couple of lightweight packs for size as well. It’s amazing, when you have an serious selection of brands in front of you, how much easier it is to make a comparison. As I’ve learned, backpacks are not a good thing to order online unless you’re absolutely sure of the fit.
In the general gear section, we looked for and found the new Sawyer Mini filter. I’ve been debating about using one, particularly for silty places like the Big Cypress. We held off on that for now. The array of extremely useful small stuff, from cup lids to refillable plastic bottles to lightweight ‘biners, had us digging around this central section for some time. I thought it was pretty cool that they had a setup for firing up a stove right in the store and testing it.
The left side of the store is devoted to technical clothing, with shoes in the far back left corner. I worked my way through trying on various brands of fleece, as I’ve been needing a new fleece jacket, and found a good REI-branded Polartec that would do the trick. About that time, the store began to fill up with other folks who’d been invited for the Thursday evening pre-opening celebration. We had a chance to talk with the REI staff one-on-one and meet key people – including some old friends – from outdoor organizations from around the region, including the North Florida Trailblazers chapter of the Florida Trail Association and several friends from the main FTA office in Gainesville. Representatives from local Friends organizations, running groups, Scouting, paddling, and mountain biking clubs were all present. Tasty buffet treats awaited in strategic locations around the store.
After opening remarks by the Vice President of Sales for REI and the regional director, store manager Kara Montgomery got “on the rocks” and welcomed us all to the event, taking the time to introduce key members of her staff. Among them is a Jacksonville native, Ken Bevill, who’s glad to make his way home. The 47 staff members had a helping hand from employees who came in from Atlanta, Asheville, and Greenville to help set up the store and get everyone trained, as well as assist with prep for the Grand Opening. It’s amazing that they managed to move everything into the space in two weeks, and get the merchandise set up in just a week.
“This is your REI,” Kara said, and everyone cheered, of course. Many of us planned to return in the morning for the official grand opening, but we certainly appreciated having this sneak peek at REI’s first Florida store.