Outdoor Adventures Are Still Possible, and Bill Jackson's is still open
Editor’s Note: The world we’re living in has changed drastically since we published our Great Outdoors issue last month. But Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure, which Eric Snider profiled for that issue, remains open 10-5 Monday-Saturday for takeaway shopping. While many of the in-store experiences described in Eric’s story (below) have been postponed for the moment, it remains a truly one-of-a-kind Tampa Bay institution, and one that’s open for business.
It’s Tuesday at 9:45 a.m., time for the daily staff meeting at Bill Jackson’s Shop For Adventure. Darry Jackson, co-president of the popular outdoor store with his brother Doug, walks the 15 or so folks outside into a wooded area near the parking spaces. Today’s 15-minute gathering is about the foliage that populates the 5.5-acre property — what species are native, what are invasive, and other tidbits. Darry holds up a sprig of the unwelcome Brazilian pepper tree, and asks the group to pluck any little ones they see peeking out of the ground. After this quick, informative outing, everyone heads back inside to their posts, getting ready for the 10 a.m. opening.
That’s it? What about running through the numbers, announcing daily sales goals and which products to push — the kind of topics discussed during morning meetings at big box retailers?
“We don’t do any of that,” Darry says. “We do some product education and some staff recommendations. We have no sales training. Our people are not on commission. We don’t really have salespeople here.”
What Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure does have is experts. Each team member — 62 employees at last count — comes on board with experience in at least one department. A fuller slate of outdoor products and services is difficult to imagine. Besides the usual fishing, hunting, skiing, paddling, shooting, diving, camping, climbing gear and apparel, Bill Jackson’s sells metal detectors, safes (some of them huge), and other products that don’t fit under the umbrella of outdoor sports.
The 40,000-square-foot space includes an indoor gun range; a 100,000-gallon indoor pool specially designed for scuba lessons; a full ski section, with a movable, carpeted slope for lessons and a full-service repair shop; and three classrooms for instruction on gun safety and other subjects. Outside is Jackson’s Landing on adjacent Freedom Lake, where customers learn to kayak, paddleboard and fly-fish.
Bill Jackson’s is a bona fide Bay area institution, a legacy retailer that exists in a single location, whose owners have never been interested in adding outlets or franchising the brand. The shop has stayed the course amid an influx of big box retailers, as well as the explosion of online commerce. Why? Because this family-owned business, founded in 1946, has a deeply ingrained culture that has grown organically over the decades.
“We have this saying: ‘We teach what we sell,’” Doug Jackson says. “Scuba lessons, snow skiing, kayaking, gun safety, camping clinics, fly-fishing classes. Most places can’t do that. And you can’t get that kind of instruction online.”
The emphasis on expertise started early. “My dad’s first employee was a guy named Bud Stark,” Doug recalls. “Someone came in and said to him, ‘I can buy this Coleman lantern down the street for two dollars less. Give me one reason I should buy it here.’ Bud says, ’Cause I can show you to light it.’ The guy bought it from us.”
A trip to Bill Jackson’s is a real experience, and that experience starts with getting here. You turn east at the big sign on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park, then wend your way through a wooded area until you reach a building topped with a simple placard that reads “Bill Jackson.” There is no conventional parking lot. Instead, spaces have been carved out amid the vegetation, campground-style. Inside the cavernous building are rows and rows and racks and racks of products, but with plenty of elbow room to invite unhurried browsing.
Bill Jackson’s embodies a vanishing breed: the destination retailer.
To be accurate, not every Bill Jackson’s staff member signed on with existing outdoor credentials. Baudelia Velazco, the manager of cashiers, is standing at the checkout counter, a light sweater covering her blue polyester staff shirt. A red knit ski cap, a stylish touch on a brisk day, covers her dark hair.
Baudelia was born in Puerto Rico and moved with her family to Hudson, Massachusetts when she was 5. After high school, she lit out for Florida, mostly for the weather, and landed in Pinellas County. “I’m a PR baby,” she says with a grin. She used to work at Chipotle in Pinellas Park, where a lot of Bill Jackson’s staffers would have lunch. Baudelia caught their eye, not just because she’s eye-catching but because the Jackson’s crew often witnessed her doing three jobs along the serving line to cover for co-workers more prone to slacking.
The staffers lobbied Darry to check this hard-working young woman out. He stopped in for lunch at Chipotle and offered her a job on the spot. She accepted. That was in 2007, making her one of many employees with double-digit years on the job. Even though she’s a manager, Baudelia is not tethered to an office or behind a cash register. Her favorite place to work is in ski apparel, where she can help customers look sharp on the slopes.
It all but goes without saying that this sort of impromptu employee recruitment is unheard of in corporate retail. It’s an example of how the Bill Jackson’s culture chooses the human touch over rigid systems and metrics.
During WWII, Bill Jackson, who grew up in Atlanta, served two-and-a-half years in England as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Force, then spent the rest of his five-year stint at MacDill AFB. In 1943, he met Harriet Rogers at a big band party on the base. They became inseparable.
Bill was discharged as a major in November 1945. Shortly after marrying Harriet on Dec. 14, 1946, Bill attended an army surplus auction at MacDill, purchased 500 pounds of rat poison and a ton of laundry bleach, and stored it in a small garage. He quickly sold all of the stuff. Bill and Harriett, who became business as well as life partners, set up Bill Jackson Army Surplus in a warehouse building at 4th Street and 11th Avenue South in St. Pete. The shop sold surplus furniture, sleeping bags, backpacks, tents and other gear.
“You remember those radios that soldiers would crank up during combat?” Darry asks. “We sold a lot of those. Contractors used them to communicate with workers on building sites.”
Bill Jackson’s added fishing tackle and scuba equipment to its product line. When Bill started to teach scuba diving in 1952, it was a pivotal moment in the store’s march toward becoming a full-on outdoor retailer. Darry was born in 1948, and Doug came along a year later. “We didn’t have babysitters,” Darry says. “We grew up in the store.” They worked, too. As early as age 5 and 6, the brothers were putting price tags on products and using turned-over trash cans to reach countertops.
Over the course of 30 years, Bill Jackson’s moved and expanded in the same southeast section of St. Pete. In 1976, the Jacksons built their dream store on five acres of virgin woods in Pinellas Park. In ’87, the shop got a major boost when Visa filmed an action-packed commercial there. The 30-second spot ran worldwide. “We’d have people who were visiting from Europe make a point of coming in,” Doug says. “We had calls every week from people wanting to know if we’d like to franchise. We said no. We knew we’d lose control over the quality.”
Bill Jackson’s has enjoyed plenty of boom years. Lately, Doug says, “we’re holding our own. It’s not been as great as it has been in the past, but so far so good this year.”
The Jackson family built a legendary store that has withstood the whims and vicissitudes of retail. Bill and Harriet Jackson remained spouses and business partners for 67 years. About 15 or 20 years ago, Doug reckons, they ceded day-to-day operations to their sons. Bill Jackson died on January 29, 2014 at age 98. Until a month before his passing, he was coming into the store five days a week, if only for an hour or two. Harriet, who was in a nursing home, passed away 33 days later. She was 93.
Darry and Doug Jackson — who each own half the business — are determined to carry on their parents’ legacy. They both work full time, with no plans to retire.