On nearly a daily basis, Russ Fjeldsted, at 84, still drops by The Sportsman, the store his family has owned in one incarnation or another for the past 70 years.
People see him and say “You still here?” or “Retired yet?” or some other variation on the theme.
To which Russ replies, “I retired in 1963 when Barbara and I moved here and took over the store.”
“Retirement,” he announces with a large reassuring smile, “is doing what you enjoy doing.”
For him, that means running the oldest outdoor gear store in Logan — and one of the oldest in the entire Intermountain West.
If you live in Cache Valley and don’t know where The Sportsman is, you probably don’t know where the mountains are, either.
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The store’s namesake is no longer with us. Jack Croft was a famous athlete in the early days of Utah State University when the school was still called the Agricultural College. He starred on the football and track teams, and later served on the football coaching staff before taking over the head coaching job at Montana State University for two years in the 1930s.
In 1947, Croft decided he’d open a sporting goods store in downtown Logan and name it after himself, sorta. He called it The Sportsman.
The first location was next to the bus depot on Center Street. Business was so good that by 1955 Croft moved around the corner to 129 Main, where The Sportsman has remained ever since.
In 1963, when Croft was in his 60s and looking for a little more down time to ski and play in the hills, he invited his daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Russ, to move from Salt Lake City, where Barbara worked as an editor for the Salt Lake Tribune and Russ was in advertising, and help him run the business.
They did. They’re still here.
“Haven’t regretted a minute of it,” says Russ as he and Barbara pose for a photo in the middle of the store, just down the aisle from a colorized photograph of Jack Croft himself and Lucile Ballif Croft — Barbara’s parents — who are standing on the shores of Bear Lake in 1925 next to a canoe.
Two of Russ and Barbara’s six children, Mark and Kristen, join their parents for the family photo. They are third-generation managers of the business. All the Fjeldsted kids worked in the store growing up.
Russ is asked how they’ve done it; how have they kept a family business running for seven decades, through thick and thin, recessions and economic upturns, good times and bad?
Well, he says, shrugging, it helps that “the outdoors never goes out of style.”
Nodding in the direction of Main Street/U.S. 89 just outside, he also adds the salient fact that “every day 40,000 cars go past our front door.”
His business philosophy is simple: “You have to have a love for your customers, you have to take care of them, and they’re always right.”
And, he cautions, don’t ever start a greeting with, “May I help you?”
“Ask them that and almost every time they’ll say, ‘No.’ Instead, say, ‘Hi, how are you today?’ or ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘Going skiing today?’ Then you can have a conversation.”
Russ, who served a term as mayor of Logan in 1990-94 and before that was on the city commission, praises Logan’s business stability. For a variety of reasons, he says, “we’ve been fairly immune to the ups and downs of the economy.”
Times have changed, and so have product lines. In the early days it was baseball, football, basketball, hunting and fishing. Now it’s skis, bikes, backpacks and, especially, clothing and shoes.
“No ball shorts like the old days,” muses Russ.
As one of the West’s most experienced purveyors of outdoor goods, Russ has something to say about the Outdoor Retailer Association’s decision to no longer hold its winter and summer shows in Utah because the organization doesn’t agree with Utah’s efforts to try and unlock millions of acres that have been set aside for national monuments.
He sees the industry’s position as “so self-serving. Anyone can see the hypocrisy. They want to keep the land open so people can take the hammers and pitons they sell and go wreck the rocks and break the arches. As long as they’re making a buck, they’ll sell all the ropes they can.”
“We’ve been outdoor retailers for 70 years,” he says proudly. “And we’re not going anywhere.”