Editor’s Note: The world we’re living in has changed drastically since we published our Great Outdoors issue last month. But the Bass Pro Shops store in Brandon, which Eric Snider wrote about for that issue, remains open, including special senior shopping hours on weekdays. While conditions may not be all as Eric described them in the story below, the spirit and long-running success of the store remain as impressive as ever.
An elderly fellow wearing a ballcap emblazoned with “Navy Veteran” sits in a plush leather chair in the front lobby area of the Bass Pro Shop in Tampa. Actually, the space is more like a hunting lodge tucked in the corner of a 130,000-square-foot megastore. The man scrolls through his smartphone. Who knows how long he’s been here, but the guy is so settled in it seems as if he might grab a sleeping bag off the rack and spend the night.
No Bass Pro staffer approaches him. It appears as if he’s free to lounge here until the lights go out. This is but one example of what sets Bass Pro Shops apart from your typical big-box retailer. Crafting an experience — whether it’s idling in a chair or test-driving an off-road vehicle — has ushered the brand to the top of the outdoor store food chain. Bass Pro Shops has nearly 200 locations in North America and welcomes 200 million visitors annually. Today, Bass Pro Shops are the No. 1 tourist destination in three states, including its original flagship in Springfield, Missouri.
If you use a gizmo to count your steps, Bass Pro Shops in Brandon is a good place to visit. There are fishing boats and off-roaders here, a sea of fishing rods there, row after row of hunting rifles here, an 11,000-gallon freshwater aquarium (with fish floating by) there. You can get lost in a jungle of camo wear. Off to the left is Islamorada Fish Company, an 8,000-square-foot restaurant owned and run by the company. And on and on you go. There’s even a department dedicated to home decor, toys and gifts. Bass Pro Shops is not so much a lifestyle brand as a lifestyle in itself. (When the complex opened on a vast plot of land near Brandon in July 2015, it caused quite the hubbub, something akin to the frenzy surrounding Tampa’s first Trader Joe’s.)
The chain has humble beginnings. Johnny Morris was raised in Springfield, the son of John and Genny, who grew up poor in the Ozarks. They shared their passion for hunting, fishing and the great outdoors with their son. Johnny, after a five-year stint on the pro bass fishing circuit, opened the first Bass Pro Shop in 1972, using eight square feet in the back of his dad’s liquor store, says company lore. It was the sole Bass Pro location until 1985.
In the ensuing 35 years, Morris has built a dynasty, which now includes nine different restaurant concepts; White River Marine Group, an umbrella for nine boat brands; Big Cedar Lodge, a wilderness resort in Missouri; Big Cypress Lodge, a huge hotel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee; and other attractions.
Johnny Morris, now 72, has rightfully earned his reputation as a visionary and a legend.