Outdoor Sports Center is a very visible, cornerstone retail business in Wilton. But did you know they’re a longtime local business, one that originated in Wilton and has roots here that run deep?

John and Sidney Maxwell met in the 1930s while skiing, and clearly loved it–they honeymooned skiing at Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. As a ski-loving family in Wilton, they wanted to get more people interested in the sport, starting a ski club and hiring buses to bring people from Wilton up to Vermont, before many of the major resorts there opened.

The “Skiing Maxwells of Wilton” on the cover of a magazine.
The “Skiing Maxwells of Wilton” on the cover of a magazine.

They opened a storefront called the Ski Hut in the late 1950s in Wilton Center, as the first tenants in the Piersall Building, and later moved to the spot now occupied by CVS.

By 1983, under the guidance of the Maxwells’ son, Jack, they moved to the store’s current location at 80 Danbury Rd. and changed the name of the store to Outdoor Sports Center. At the time, the store took up only the two front rooms of the current building, where the current skis and helmet section is. Jack’s goal was always to grow the business, little by little.

Back then Jack’s sons, Scott and Will were aged 3 and 1, respectively. Today Scott oversees the retail side of the business and buying and Will handles the information technology and advertising. And they’re continuing the family’s goal of growing not only the business, but the local interest in all things outdoor.

Still completely family-owned, they have 35 full-time employees, (including part-timers, it’s somewhere around 75 people total). Ski equipment sales and rentals is still the primary part of the businessg–they fulfill approximately 12,000 rental contracts each season, including both daily and seasonal rentals.

“September through December is definitely our busiest time, and the ski department stays busy through February,” Will explains, noting that the bike department is a close second. In addition to fully stocked ski, bike and boat areas, the store has camping and climbing, footwear and apparel departments. “Everything you need to do the sport, we sell as well.”

The family and the store have always been pioneers in helping the community venture into more adventurous sporting pursuits. “We’ve had a boat department for a long time. That started when our father was really into kayaking in his youth, back when fiberglass kayaks were first being made. We’ve had a boat department since we moved into this place in 1983. The stand-up paddle boards started for us in the early 2000s,” says Will.

The Maxwells have connections throughout the national and global sports business community, which gives them an advantage when it comes to having access to top-of-the-line gear.

“One of my friends was an importer for Jimmy Lewis boards, and in 2005 he said, ‘Give this a try.’ So we bought four boards from him the first year. It took a lot longer to sell them in those days, but we were definitely the first ones to have stand-up paddle boards in the area,” Scott recalls. “We’ve see it grow from selling four boards a year to over 100 a year.”

Those relationships pay off, especially as manufacturers see the market niche that Outdoor Sports continues to grow. One example is how GoPro, the outdoor action adventure camera company, is supporting the store with the launch of its newest model. “They’ve selected 25 accounts in New England for launch day [today, Monday, Oct. 6] of the GoPro Hero4 and 4 Black. They’re only being launched through specialty retailers,” says Scott.

“No one will have them around here except us,” adds Will.

The store also has a great relationship with Cannondale Bicycles, another large sports business in town. “We’re trying to work together a bit, which is good,” says Will.

One thing the two businesses have in common is a desire to be more involved with sports in the outdoors here in Wilton, as evidenced by Outdoor Sports’ support of the Norwalk River Valley Trail. They’ve helped with volunteer manpower in helping to build it and they love to see local residents out enjoying the trail. They’re currently running a promotional effort to help boost that.

“We’re running a Facebook campaign, giving away a $250 gift certificate. People can post a picture of themselves enjoying the new section of trail in Wilton, and tag Norwalk River Valley Trail or #NRVT. The photo with the most ‘likes’ by the official opening on Oct. 18 will get the gift certificate,” Will explains.

The brothers are avid outdoor athletes themselves. Scott is a runner, and has enjoyed growing that part of the business. “We opened a running department, and watching the growth in our business as well as in the area has been huge. There are so many charity races, or off trail races locally, it’s been a lot of fun to see.”

They need to be trend-spotters as well. “The growth of mixed-sport racing–you combine a running race with a mountain bike race or a kayak race, that’s been interesting. It’s not your traditional triathlon, and it all falls into the spirit of what we do here,” Will adds.

Given that sports is what the family and the store is all about, everyone gets outdoors as much as they can. Will mountain bikes in the summer, and “of course, winter is nothing but skiing, we ski as much as possible, at the local mountains, Vermont and try to get out west a little each year.” The OSC employees are also active.

“In a retail environment, we can’t all go out at lunch for a ride,” they laugh. “But after work there are always people getting together to go out on rides, paddle, hike, there are lots of activities–that’s the reason most people work here. For the community and meeting other people who are likeminded and like to do similar things. We also have guys who do that weekend warrior type events on their own and compete at high levels. A lot of talented athletes come through the building. They head out on really interesting trips around the world.” Case in point, Scott took a three-week trip to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and go on a safari.

“Someone is always headed off somewhere interesting around here. Two of our staff members have through-hiked the A.T. [Appalachian Trail], which is a huge achievement. Our staff is eager to get outside,” says Scott, who says that familiarity and expertise in their chosen sports helps make the OSC employees reliable when it comes to providing the top notch advice to customers.

“It’s not about having a cashier. You can teach someone how to sell something; you can’t teach someone what it’s like to be outside. When we hire staff members, whether it’s a 15-year-old high school student on his first job, or someone who is looking to take over a department, if they’re not actively participating in whatever they’re talking about, it doesn’t work. You need to do what you sell, and that’s what separates us from a lot of other places. If you’re talking to someone who just says, ‘This ski is better than that ski,’ only because of what he read in the catalog, that doesn’t work these days. You can find that out off the Internet.”

Will adds, “Every single employee has been on every ski and book in that department before any customer comes in and talks to them. Last year we were riding all the stuff we have this year. It makes a difference when an employee can say, ‘My opinion is based on my experience with this,’ rather than what the sales rep told me to tell you.”

It goes beyond the experience. Many of the images on the walls were photos taken by the employees on their own adventure travels around the world. “We try to incorporate the experiences our staff members have had in our advertising too,” Will says.

As a family run business, it’s easy for the Maxwells to look at their employees as a family too. “Some of the people working here have been here since we were literally in diapers,” jokes Scott. “There are some who are pushing 25-30 years working for the store. They enjoy the environment, they like what they do.”

That helps when customers are local and come back year after year. “It makes the interaction personal and seeing the same face again builds that relationship, and we focus on that. Some bike shops will go down to one mechanic in the winter and maybe a salesman or two. We keep a huge staff in the wintertime, because we still want them involved in our store, and in the customers who still come in. You go to REI in the wintertime, it’s hard to find a bike. We want to be a bike shop 365 days a year.”

Outdoor Sports is located at 80 Danbury Rd.