If you think back to the first camping/outdoors shop you experienced, it may very well have been a cramped environment, stuffed with stock from ceiling-to-floor. More current iterations of this retail experience might’ve lost the clutter, but there’s an overwhelming amount of merchandise. St. Louis’ newest entry into the field of camping retail, KAMP, instead focuses on select product lines, inside a shop that’s sleek and elegant.
Jason and Mandi Gray have created a space that’s already attracted attention for its unique look. For example, St. Louis Magazine noted that: “Not many camping stores look like art galleries, but KAMP does. Jason Gray is a photographer, and Mandi Gray is an interior designer, and when they were setting up the displays in their new store’s minimalist Cherokee space, they had to warn each other not to make everything look too perfect, or people might be afraid to pick stuff up.”
To get a better sense of the background of the business and the duo’s future plans for the shop, we sent some questions to the couple.
The idea for KAMP was born how/when?
About two years ago, we decided that we wanted to make a change in our careers that would allow us to spend more time as a family, and that would merge our workday life with our shared interests.
How did your different job experiences inform the look-and-feel of the space? Beyond that, how did they influence your decision to go into a retail environment?
Mandi’s background in interior design helped influence the look and feel of the space, as did Jason’s background in exhibition design. Our mutual backgrounds in community building meant that we wanted to include a multi-use space for that purpose. As of this year, we’ve been in a relationship for 20 years, so we knew how we’d work together, and as a side-effect of pursuing creative fields in Los Angeles and Chicago, we both knew the ins-and-outs of retail sales. Additionally, Jason worked for a time as a Merchandising Manager for a chain of travel stores, so he had a good idea of what exactly we were getting into.
Can you talk about your suppliers and the brands you hope to stock in coming months? And how you find your true niche within the outdoors sales landscape in St. Louis?
We try to select vendors that share our philosophies about the outdoors and the world in general. With this in mind, many of them have non-profit extensions to their for-profit businesses, whether that means planting trees to assist with maintaining forests or providing energy infrastructure to communities without an existing electrical grid. When you purchase from us and these vendors, your dollars contribute to good in the world, and even though consumerism alone is unlikely to solve the world’s problems, small steps combined have a place in that work.
It’s difficult to say what exactly our position will be in the outdoor industry, but we want to encourage more city people to enjoy time outside of the city and we hope that we are building an ecosystem that fosters that. A problem that we see in the outdoor industry as a whole is that of inclusion, whether that be against race, sex, or sexuality, and as a transracial family, it concerns us that our children are not encouraged to enjoy the outdoors to the same capacity that we were. At the store, we are trying to build a diverse community through our outreach activities, and we link up as often as possible with other businesses and organizations in the area that are already working hard to combat these issues.
You mentioned wanting to have a strong community component to the programming at your space. Can you sketch out some ideas of how that might come together?
First of all, we hope that the Cherokee community will want to support us as a small, family-owned business that’s invested in the area. Many of the products that we sell are either not sold in other stores in Missouri, are not stocked to the depth that we do, or are not sold in other brick-and-mortar environments at all.
We hope that the “shop small” philosophy will come through for us in its mission to preserve the neighborhood as a vibrant place for folks to live, work and play. Everyone knows that it’s a struggle for independent retailers to survive in a landscape that makes it easy to shop from your living room couch, so we hope that what we are building will mean enough to the people of the neighborhood for them to want to see us stick around.
That said, if people don’t feel welcome in our space, then we should expect to not feel welcome as well. Our programming moving forward will be meant in part to reflect that actuality, and we already offer storytelling for kids, yoga for kids and adults, hiking excursions, classes and more that are all a part of that.