Swenson’s Outdoors: like an ‘old-fashioned general store’
March 12, 2014
105 W. Main St. and 125 Mill St., Grass Valley
Hours: Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Weekends, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
When men shop for knives, they're just like women with shoes and purses, said Rosie Doolittle, who owns the two Swenson's Outdoors stores on West Main and Mill streets with her husband, Norm.
"You know how men are — when they come in to shop they don't dawdle, they're usually on a mission," she said. "Except when it comes to the knives. They can never get enough of 'em."
Established in 1959 under the name Swenson's Surplus, the cavernous West Main Street store — which spans some 153 feet from front to back — has become a landmark, having served three generations of customers.
Need snow boots in the summer? A shade canopy in the winter? A quick look at the packed rows of merchandise reveals cast iron skillets, slippers, first aid kits, pink zebra pajamas, Army surplus wool blankets, a fleece Confederate flag, Hawaiian shirts, cowboy boots, souvenir mugs, long underwear, bungee cords, jog bras, shot glasses, undergarment suspenders, a Disney princess tent, decorative Samurai swords, carabiners, sleds, mosquito netting, flame retardant pants, ice chests and a French ammo belt.
And that doesn't include the vast selection of American-made socks and work boots. Swenson's also claims to have the largest selection of Carhartt clothing in the county, including women's and babies clothes, and 20 different styles of men's pants.
Other popular brands include Ben Davis and Dickies. To top it off, there is a foam shop in the back, with sizes and widths cut to order.
In addition to the endless stream of new items arriving daily, the Doolittles now have a new challenge on their hands. They plan to move out of the West Main Street retail space they're renting and move their entire inventory — some 8,000 items — into the building they own on Mill Street. Norm, a contractor by trade, is currently renovating the Mill Street space, raising the roof and adding a floor. Upon completion, it will have three stories and 7,000 square feet of floor space.
"The main reason we're moving everything is to stay price friendly," said Rosie.
"The prices of electricity, water and shipping aren't going to go down, and we can't afford the rent on Main Street."
Both Norm and Rosie insist the new expanded store will maintain the flavor of the original store — complete with Army surplus items — just a little more spread out and categorized.
"We'd like to make it a little more customer friendly for those who don't want to cruise the aisles for two hours," said Rosie, with a laugh. "But we'll still have some of the same funky old stuff."
What's a typical Swenson's customer like? It runs the gamut, says Rosie, from the contractor in need of work boots, to family campers, to the Burning Man fanatic in search of the perfect World War II drop-seat long johns and dust goggles. The store continues to offer lay-away — a nearly obsolete practice — and several customers continue to pay $5 a week on a cherished item, said Norm, who claims he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I love it when people come in looking for something weird," said Rosie. "Customers are always astounded that we actually know where everything is. We're a lot like an old-fashioned general store. We change the inventory based on the needs of our customers, and if we don't have it, we can order it. We work hard to keep prices down and carry things that are American made. We don't carry cheap stuff that falls apart."
Although the Doolittles and their four employees are looking forward to the new space, due to open in October, they've always loved the controlled chaos of the Main Street store, which has been in business for more than 50 years.
"It's never bothered me that it's cluttered — it's never been a perfect, cutesy, little organized store," said Rosie.
"The feedback we get the most from customers is, 'You're not going to go all uptown on us, are you?' I assure them it will never happen. I love this store the way it is. It's me."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.