A 10-foot Kodiak bear engulfs a boy in its paws. A few feet away, the kid's mother takes a picture of the assault. Across the aisle, a 40-foot waterfall cascades down a cliff littered with freeze-framed ferocity: cougar, coyote, mountain goat, beaver and other wildlife, all crouched for action but oblivious to each other. Behind the Kodiak bear, a waterwheel jutting out from a two-story log cabin slowly churns a pool shared by two live alligators and a crocodile. A herd of mounted mule deer and a flock of wild turkeys stare calmly over racks of neon-pink and lime-green T-shirts. In a 64,000-gallon aquarium at the base of the waterfall, a diver is in the water feeding fish by hand and talking about them, via a microphone in his mask, to an audience seated around the glass walls of the 11-foot-deep aquarium.
This is the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, a 115,000-square-foot structure located on the northern edge of the Ozarks in Springfield, Mo. Some people may remember Springfield as the place where Jerry Falwell attended Baptist Bible College and as the headquarters of the Assemblies of God. But to bass anglers it is pure heaven.
The Bass Pro Shops—not to be confused with B.A.S.S., which is how the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society likes to refer to itself—came into being because fisherman Johnny Morris went to one of the first B.A.S.S. tournaments, in 1969, and discovered his rivals using all manner of lures that he had never seen before, things like jelly worms, plastic grubs and Hopkins spoons. Morris told his buddies back home in Springfield about the great "new stuff, and they rose to the bait, or at least Morris was sure they would have, if only they could have found a place to buy it. The upshot was that Morris created his first Bass Pro Shop, a place where anglers could get the new gear.
In 1971, Morris started selling crank baits, buzz baits and the like off a couple of shelves his father set aside for him in the two liquor stores he owned in the Springfield area. Two years later he had his own store and began a thriving mailorder operation on the side. Over the past two decades Morris has ridden the phenomenal, TV-assisted wave of interest in bass fishing.
This year the Bass Pro Shops' 411-page master catalog will be mailed to 2½ million subscribers—who have paid $3 apiece—and there are four seasonal catalogs that are sent free to a total of 16½ million additional recipients. In return come orders that require 250 tractor-trailer loads of goods to be sent from the Bass Pro Shops' 144,000-square-foot warehouse in Springfield every month. Additionally, there are some 3,000 dealers who are authorized to sell equipment they order from Bass Pro Shops. Nowadays the four-story Outdoor World on Highway 160 in Springfield is pretty much a sideline to Bass Pro Shops' enormous mail-order business.
That is not the message delivered to the more than three million people who visit the place each year. Outdoor World houses 1,500 mounted animals, including the largest great white shark ever taken on rod and reel (18 feet long and weighing 4,350 pounds); Ethel, a live 19½-pound largemouth bass with an attitude (she once swallowed one of her feeder's arms up to the elbow in her haste to swallow a goldfish being offered her as lunch); a restaurant called Hemingway's, with a seafood bar made out of a skiff once owned by "Bonefish Willie," Papa's favorite guide at Bimini; a stream trickling down the middle of the shopping floor; a pistol and archery range; a separate 100-yard rifle range; and even a barber shop, where customers sit in deep-sea fishing chairs.
TV monitors show promotional clips and such instructional videos as Deep Cranking: The Kneel-and-Reel Fishing Method. Live seminars are held in the auditorium; recently, pro bass fisherman Gary Klein told listeners they could practice fishing in their living rooms by watching how their cats react to moving lures: "The way a cat stalks and strikes looks and feels just like a bass," Klein said. "Just don't set the hook too deep."
Over loudspeakers on the main shopping floor comes the repeated message, "Welcome to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. By reputation, the world's greatest sporting goods store." Who would dispute that?
Well, Gart Bros. Sporting Goods Company would. In 1971, Gart Bros., which was founded in 1928, staked its claim as the world's "largest sporting goods store" when it opened the Sportscastle on the corner of 10th and Broadway in Denver. That company eschews aquariums but stresses its wide range of sporting goods.
The Sportscastle, which began life in 1925 as a Chrysler dealership, was reportedly modeled after an actual ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau in France. There are even stained-glass windows on the first level that still display the winged Chrysler logo. When Jerry Gart, chairman of Gart Bros., bought the building, he used the interior ramps that had been constructed for moving cars as an aid for shoppers in a hurry. He even built a new ramp and supplied modified golf carts to get customers quickly to the 10 levels of his retailing palace. It has become such a successful shopping attraction that Gart Bros, has since opened additional Sportscastles in Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis, and Salt Lake City, and there are more than 75 other sporting goods outlets operated by Gart Bros.
Although no big deal is made of it, the 110,000-square-foot Denver Sportscastle does have diversions such as the tennis court on the roof, where customers can hit with pro Ed Foley, and the artificial mountain in the ski department—a treadmill-like setup consisting of a 22- by 36-foot rolling rug on a 30-degree angle. Beginners can get a sense of what skiing is like, with no cold to contend with, no awkward clothing, no intimidating chair-lift rides. Apprentice skiers can hold onto a rail and watch themselves perform on skis in a mirror—"like ballet dancers," says in-house ski instructor Fred King.
"Bass Outdoor World is a fabulous store, just fabulous," says Gart. He interrupts himself to greet customers he recognizes through the glass wall of his office, which faces the main entrance to the Sportscastle. "I don't know that we're operating the largest sporting goods store in the world today. But we're running the best one.... We really believe we have every single thing the sportsman could want. The only real department Outdoor World has is fishing. It's a different thing entirely. And we're not a museum, a place to visit from curiosity. The attractions we have are to utilize the product we sell. I have no intention of hiring a curator to run an aquarium."
Morris says, "Gart Bros, is ahead of us in its skiing department and in cameras, but other than that I can't think what Jerry Gart has that we don't have. And we also have reel repair, taxidermy and a wildlife art gallery."
The Sportscastle claims that the world's largest golf shop is within its walls. Outdoor World claims that it has the world's largest rod-and-reel shop and a taxidermy department that handles 1,600 fish a year. Most fish are shipped to Springfield frozen, though Bass Pro Shops can make fiberglass replicas from just measurements and photos, and it urges anglers to release their catches.
Several members of the Gart clan—Jerry's Uncle Melvin, his brother Mickey and his three sons, Kenneth, Thomas and John—work in the Sportscastle, and they count Gerald and Betty Ford and Jack Nicklaus among their acquaintances. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp and the Aga Khan have been customers. But Outdoor World has been visited by two presidents, George Bush and Jimmy Carter. And Gary Carter, Christian Okoye, Porter Wagoner and the band Alabama are among Bass Pro Shops' customers. Gart Bros, sponsors an annual Labor Day weekend ski sale that draws as many as 18,000 shoppers a day. Outdoor World sponsored a "World Fishing Fair" in 1988 that drew 250,000 people over four days.
But why keep score? In the land of the sporting goods giants, it's a pleasure just to browse around.
Randy Welch is a free-lance writer who is based in Denver.