John Summers '56 might be retired, but that doesn't mean he's not busy. Months after closing his well-known Backcountry Outfitters store in Keene, he remains active as ever, building tennis courts and working with the many nonprofit boards on which he serves. A staunch advocate of outdoor sports, Summers practices what he preaches, finding ample time to kayak and canoe around Forest Lake near his home in Winchester.
But you don't spend more 60 years in business without feeling a tug on the heartstrings when you close up shop. Summers says he misses his many loyal customers and keeping up with the trends in the market.
If Summers had followed his father's advice, there might not have been a Summers Backcountry Outfitters store in Keene. "My father told me I shouldn't do it. He said there were too many hours involved in running a retail store," said Summers. "But I had a burning desire to own a store, so that's what I did."
Summers' recreational roots can be traced back to his grandfather, who was a PGA pro, and his father, the squash coach at MIT. Summers and his four brothers grew up in Holliston, Mass., and for high school Summers went to the Holderness School in Plymouth, where he lettered in just about every sport offered. When he graduated in 1947, colleges were full of veterans on the GI Bill. Summers decided to take a job working for New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Peterborough.
After a month, he called the headmaster at Holderness, who sent his transcript to Dr. Lloyd P. Young, president of Keene Teachers College. "When I got through work, I smelled like oil, was covered in oil, and was tired of doing the same thing," Summers said. "I was ready to go back to school."
Accepted at KTC, Summers spent his first year on campus living in the back of Kappa House. An education major, he also found time to be on the school's soccer, hockey, and tennis teams. At the end of his sophomore year, Summers decided to enlist in the Army and was sent to Germany, where he met his wife-to-be, Marty, and made connections in the recreational sports industry.
Returning to Keene State, Summers started selling skis, boots, and other equipment out of his living room closet while he was living in the military barracks at the end of Marlboro Street. His best customer was the Keene State ski team. He soon moved the operation to Church Street, where a friend had a small print shop. The store, then called John Summers' Ski and Sport (and later, Ski and Mountain) wasn't much bigger than his living room closet. "If you got more than two people in there, you couldn't turn around, but it was a space," Summers told the Keene Sentinel in an interview last winter.
Two years later, he set up shop on Main Street in the space now occupied by Brewbakers. Because it wasn't far from campus, Summers got a lot of foot traffic from KSC students.
Committed to establishing a top-of-the-line winter sports shop, he filled the store with high-end equipment and waited for profits to roll in. But things didn't go as planned. He had the right shop, but the wrong town. "This was not a resort town, and I was trying to sell expensive stuff," Summers told the Sentinel. "I went around to all the banks with my hat in my hand. They told me I was going to fail."
A new location and renewed interest in recreational sports did wonders for Summers' business. When he moved to his present location on Ashuelot Street in 1980, Summers was able to expand his inventory and start an equipment rental service.
In its heyday, there was something for everybody at Backcountry Outfitters. Kayaks and canoes, in all colors and sizes, leaned against the building or were suspended overhead. Skis and snowshoes that lined the walls in the winter gave way to paddles, rods, and tennis racquets come springtime. Since you need the right attire for your athletic pursuits, Summers had the perfect parka or the widest assortment of waders. In the fall, there was always a "Welcome, KSC Students" sign on the building.
As he got ready to close his shop last winter, he said it had been a good run. "I never expected that it would last this long," said Summers, looking at the barren walls that once stocked his livelihood. "But I enjoyed it tremendously because I helped a lot of people. I wouldn't have been able to survive all these years without the loyalty of everyone that patronized my business."