The consignment store Mountain Equipment Recyclers had been open for about a year, and owner Mike Mazolla was working alone there one day in 2011.
Mazolla's efforts to connect with the community were paying off, and the doors had begun to swing with a stream of runners, cyclists, backpackers and oddball dirtbaggers.
But the days, and sometimes the nights, were long. Mazolla created the business as a way to help military families affected by the Middle Eastern conflict. He donated a portion of each sale to military nonprofits. But a flat economy made it tough on everybody.
He had quit his job in real estate to start Mountain Equipment Recyclers (MER).
The pressure was on. With no retail experience, he learned on the fly, but stayed true to himself and his ideas.
"Living in this town, you end up being a part of what's going on with the military," Mazolla says. "It was in the paper every day, guys coming back with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder and terrible things. Families broken, just really tough stuff. And I wanted to find a way to help."
His ideas were admirable, but with a son preparing for college and his wife, Julie, paying the bills at home, was he really doing the right thing?
A soldier walked in the store that day and quelled those concerns.
"He came in and he had tears in his eyes, and he said thank you for giving to the military charities," Mazolla said. "It was a very private thing, it was just me here, and the guy welled up with tears, and I just said thank you for your service. I mean, we were just trying to pitch in and help. The whole point of starting the business was to make a difference in the community.
"And just that one guy, in that moment I knew we were doing good things."
Mike and I met on a fall day in 2010, before the store opened, when he shared his plans with me.
He had a small retail space with no heat. The consignment items had begun to flow in, but there wasn't much ... a few pair of hiking boots, a sleeping bag or two and an old kayak. He made his first dollar on Veterans Day that year, a little "good karma," he says. Since then, MER has become a cornerstone of the outdoor community, a way for active folks to give back.
I visited Mountain Equipment Recyclers last week. The coffee was on and a handful of Christmas shoppers sorted through massive racks stuffed with ski clothes and warm winter things.
Mike emerged from a back room with a smile and a hug. We laughed about those early days and he pointed to the store's big chalkboard where he keeps a tally of funds donated.
The grand total now stands at $75,000. Some of that money has also gone to the Trails and Open Space Coalition (TOSC) and UpaDowna, a nonprofit that promotes outdoor adventures. "We set up the model and the community responded to it," he says. "The community made us successful."
The consignment structure works like this: Money is passed to the nonprofit partners through the sales of consigned and donated items. Five percent of the sale price on all consigned items goes to military charities. This year, the nonprofit Project Sanctuary is the benefactor. In addition, Mazolla will pass along 50 percent of sales on items that are donated. If you donate a backpack, you choose where the money goes when it sells.
The formula works, and MER — he now has about 3,800 square feet at 1024 S. Tejon St. — is stuffed with equipment, including new and quality used skis, snowboards, bicycles, backpacks, gloves, everything. All of it is available at greatly reduced prices.
This year's big project included opening a new business, the Shift Thrift Store, a consignment outfit that benefits several outdoor nonprofits including the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, Kids on Bikes, Medicine Wheel Trails Advocates and TOSC. Shift Thrift (218 W. Colorado Ave., under the Colorado bridge), accepts all household items.
The best of it will be sold; the remainder will be recycled, if possible.
Something to think about in this season of giving.