Nancy Edmonds Hanson
When Ryan LaBarge took the reins at Scheels All Sports in downtown Moorhead 18 months ago, one thing in particular surprised him: “The trains!” Endlessly rumbling past the store at 505 Center Ave., those long lines of freight cars provide a deep counterpoint to the far different soundtrack that plays inside – the sound of boisterous children and avid sports fans of every age gearing up to pursue their passions.
The excitement, though, was no surprise. Ryan is the latest young manager chosen to build a track record at one of Moorhead’s oldest retail landmarks. A native of Rapid City, he worked for the booming chain of sports equipment and apparel stores there and in Sandy, Utah, before being tapped for management here in Scheels’ oldest and, by far, smallest store. Unlike the huge new urban stores that have been rising like retail meccas since 2006, when the corporation built its first destination megastore on 45th Street in Fargo, the far more modest local establishment has been part of the entire saga, from small-town hardware store to national juggernaut.
He learned part of that history when he arrived from the late Lloyd Paulson, longtime manager and partner. “We’re deeply involved in the community,” Ryan says, adding that the two became acquainted when Paulson took him as a guest to his Kiwanis club. “That tradition goes way back. You see it today in our involvement in youth sports, from team nights at the store to corporate support of all kinds of activities, from lacrosse and football to hockey.”
Hockey, of course. Those root run deep; one of the three rinks in the newly expanded Cullen Hockey Center bears the Scheels name. But the local store draws players and fans of every kind of team sport – football, basketball, soccer, volleyball and now lacrosse – as well as the pastimes that pull athletes and whole families outdoors … biking, skateboarding, running, camping, hiking, skiing.
It didn’t begin this way. Scheels’ origin story begins with the young immigrant Frederick A. Scheel, who invested the profits from his first crop of potatoes to buy an interest in a hardware and general merchandise store in Sabin. The mercantile life suited him. By 1927, he’s moved up to a partnership in a similar but larger store in Moorhead; a second store opened in downtown Fargo in 1930.
In those days Scheels was a traditional hardware destination, stocked with all the nails and screws, wires, tools and supplies a handy man could desire, as well as housewares for kitchen and home. Once his chores were done, that customer could – by 1954 – also return to his favorite shop for sporting goods, especially hunting and fishing. The evolution continued over the years. Loyal Moorhead customers were introduced to sports clothing and shoes when the current building opened its doors in 1972.
What was then a new idea scored big and eventually overcame its nuts-and-bolts beginning. The first all-sporting-goods store was opened in Grand Forks in 1989. By 2008, Scheels was opening the world’s largest sports store in Reno, Nevada. Today the corporation operates in 27 locations. Next spring, the largest yet is slated to open in Dallas: 330,000 square feet of what its website describes as “retail adventure,” with more than 85 specialty shops, a 65-foot Ferris wheel, a 16,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, games and activities for the whole family, an in-store café, and its own candy factory.
While new Scheels outlets have grown into full-featured retail worlds of their own, Ryan explains the local store has only grown more specialized since its latest remodeling in 2006. “That was the start of what we are today,” he observes. Housewares and hardware went by the wayside; then guns yielded ground to the Fargo superstore. Fishing equipment was one of the last to go: “We just don’t have the room to do everything to Scheels’ 2019 standards. Last year, we made the decision to take fishing out. Now we’re using the space for a little toy shop, with Legos, Lol Dolls, Baby Shark stuff … the kinds of things that are harder to find since Toys R Us went out of business.”
While revolving seasonal sports of so-called “soft lines” dictate much of what’s on display, a good share of space is dedicated to keeping sports fans’ equipment in play. Certified technicians in the repair department work on everything from bicycles to baseball mitts. “Our skate sharpening is one of the best in town,” Ryan reports. The service shop restrings tennis rackets and lacrosse sticks, rents cross-country skis, and accepts trade-ins of ice skates that little hockey and figure skaters have outgrown.
“I think we have a special recipe in this store,” the manager muses. “We’re employee-owned, and so we all have a stake in what happens here. Since Day One, it’s always been about customer service. We don’t just have people who are active and involved in the sport or activity they’re talking about. We take it way beyond the sale.” He adds, “There’s a constant focus on doing good in the community.”
These are fun days for the local staff of 50, he says, with the store echoing with the excitement of back-to-school – and back-to-sports – shopping. “Moorhead customers are incredibly loyal to this store,” he notes. “It’s more of an intimate shopping experience – not so overwhelming. You can navigate here.”
As a training store, Moorhead sees a steady stream of managers coming and going. The last, Jason McDonald, moved on to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Ryan, who took over the store in early 2018, is scheduled to move on to Minot next April. In the meantime, though, he’s left his mark, notably in the enlarged men’s footwear department that greets shoppers near the entrance.
“Moorhead is an awesome community, and it’s been good to Scheels,” he reflects. “We’ve been here a long, long time … and we’re not going anywhere.”
A Good Sport
Nancy Edmonds Hanson