After 20 years in the retail business, Russell “Rusty” Long is shutting down Katmandu, Whistler's only general store. The iconic chopper bicycle out front — which for years has stood as a symbol of Whistler's alternative lifestyle — will be wheeled away from the Marketplace location for the last time.
“It's been awesome,” said Long. “We've had some good years, having a shop, serving community and helping people. For me, that's what's been really good about it.”
Long, a native of Middleton, N.S. first travelled out west in 1979 and never looked back. He arrived in Whistler in 1981 when the Village was barely developed with just four restaurants.
“I came skiing for a day and just stayed,” said Long. “I called my boss in Maple Ridge and told him I'd see him in the summer.”
For the next 15 years Long worked managing restaurants, helping open then-new locations such as Trattoria di Umberto and La Rua. He first opened the doors of the original Katmandu in Function Junction in 1993 as a consignment store, having recently quit the restaurant business. Walking out on his job “over mashed potatoes,” as Long describes it, he had little cash to buy new inventory for his shelves.
“I used to have kids clothing, baby clothing, strollers, stereos, anything,” he laughs. “Then it kind of graduated towards the sports. I listened to people and started to stock what they wanted.”
Katmandu soon became a local's bike shop known for its skilled mechanics who were able to solve almost any bike problem. It was one of the first stores to bring in the major mountain bike brands and actually have high-end demo mountain bikes for people to try. Snowboarding was at its peak of popularity around the same time and Katmandu was the place in Village North to get equipped.
But it wasn’t long before bigger companies moved into town that were able to stock more and sell for less. Every time Long found a new niche product it would only last a few short years before competition began to sprout up across the Village.
“I did the same sales down (in Function) 18 years ago that I did this past December,” said Long. “The pie wasn't so thin back then, it was good for everybody. Now everyone is suffering in town because there's too much of everything.”
The Olympics came with its own set of challenges, Long was able to make it through by selling flags during the Games, but suffered in the months before and after like many other businesses in town.
“I was anti-Olympic all the way,” said Long. “I had friends of mine, other business owners, tell me how out of line I was. A couple of them came to me after the Olympics and apologized.”
A brief altercation with VANOC also came up. Official bumper stickers that read “I’m Backing the Bid” were popular in the lead up to the 2010 Olympics.
“A local kid came out with a sticker that read 'I'm Packing the Bud' with the same logo. I ended up with them in the store and soon received letters from VANOC's lawyers prompting me to cease and desist.”
The Olympic Plaza was one of the Games’ legacies and was expected to bring more people through the doors of businesses in Village North. For many of the shops lining the edge of the plaza, business picked up considerably. But two doors up from IGA, it was a different story.
“I mostly find (Olympic Plaza) a deterrent,” said Long. “Whenever there's anything going on there I get no business. We've tried staying open late during summer concerts and all we’d make was an extra 30 bucks in sales.”
With Katmandu in its final week of its closing-down sale, Long has been considering a new, smaller location in Function, though he has no lease secured yet. He has no plans to return to the Village with another business.
“I'm not in life to compete, I'll find another way. Money is not that important to me, lifestyle is more important.”