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REI's Origin Story

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REI's Origin Story

It All Started with an Ice Ax

In 1932, just-married transit worker Lloyd Anderson and teacher Mary Anderson built a modest home in Seattle. Three years later, this adventurous couple faced a problem common to many outdoor enthusiasts of their time: they couldn't find quality gear at affordable prices. Lloyd was an avid climber and head of a 3o year old organization called the Mountaineers. He struggled to find a good ice ax in the United States. Determined to get the equipment he needed, while bypassing the middleman’s inflated prices, Lloyd ordered an ice ax directly from Austria for $3.50. 


“The news spread like wildfire through the rebel ranks,” according to Harvey Manning’s detailed 1988 history REI: 50 Years of Climbing Together. Realizing that other outdoor enthusiasts shared their problem, the Andersons decided to create a co-operative to provide quality gear at reasonable prices. They founded the mail-order Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), in 1938. The initial membership fee was a mere $1, and members received dividends based on their purchases, a tradition that continues today.



The Andersons' first “store” was their own living room. Their first official retail space was a modest loft above a grocery store in Seattle. Word of their venture spread quickly among the local climbing and outdoor community. By 1942, REI had outgrown the loft and moved into a larger space, slowly building a reputation for offering high-quality, reliable outdoor gear.


REI's co-op model was revolutionary at the time. Instead of being driven by profit, REI focused on the needs of its members and the quality of its products. This member-first approach fostered a loyal customer base and contributed to REI's steady growth. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, REI continued to expand, opening more stores and diversifying its product offerings to include a wide range of outdoor equipment.

By the 1970s, REI had established itself as a cornerstone of the outdoor community, renowned for its knowledgeable staff and commitment to quality. The company's dedication to its cooperative principles and outdoor ethics resonated deeply with its members and the broader outdoor community.

Today, REI remains a major player in the outdoor industry, with over 150 stores across the United States and a thriving online presence. Despite its growth, REI has stayed true to its roots as a member-owned cooperative, continually focusing on providing high-quality gear, promoting outdoor education, and advocating for the protection of wild places. The Andersons' vision of a community-oriented co-op has endured for over eight decades, making REI a beloved institution among outdoor enthusiasts.

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