REI History: It Started With An Ice Axe

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1938 - Before color television. Before the completion of The Appalachian Trail. Before the end of The Great Depression. An era long before online shopping carts, or actual shopping carts for that matter. Before it was convenient to buy quality outdoor equipment.

It was 1935 when Seattle-based outdoorspeople Lloyd and Mary Anderson made a conscious decision: They needed a better way to purchase gear.

At the time, quality ice axes were available for $20, a hefty sum in those days. To get better prices, they’d have to rely on local ski shops—middlemen who charged a premium to make it happen—only to receive overpriced, imitation Austrian goods.

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Unhappy with the process, Lloyd began ordering quality ice axes directly from Austria himself, relying on Mary’s German skills to translate the catalogs. This way, they could get beautiful Austrian ice axes delivered to Seattle at a cost of a mere $3.50, including postage.

Friends and colleagues from The Mountaineers quickly caught word of what the Andersons were up to. Also seeking to stretch their bucks with quality gear, they wanted to get involved.

Light bulb! Eager to outfit others with quality, affordable gear, Lloyd and Mary decided to collect money in larger batches to increase buying power and lower the cost of goods for all.

And thus, out of a wilderness spirit, our co-op was born.

To the pair, better ice axes meant better adventures for them and their friends. What they didn’t know was how this moment would spur a movement that would create better adventures for millions of adventure-seekers in the decades to come.

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In 1938, with the help of a lawyer friend, Lloyd, Mary and twenty-one other Seattle-area adventurers officially formed the co-op, each joining for a $1 lifetime membership fee.

With a $30, no-interest loan from the Anderson founders, the co-op began to sell gear at their first retail location: a shelf at a local co-operative grocery store. The Anderson’s attic acted as their storage.

As membership grew, Lloyd cemented the co-op’s mission in a penned bulletin.

Intent of the founders of this organization was to secure sufficient membership to make group buying possible; to distribute the goods with as little overheads expense as possible, using membership cooperation with the work as much as possible; to gradually build up a reserve for purchasing stock; to have the membership fee ($1.00) so that everyone interested will be financially able to join.
-November 30, 1938.

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Though many things are different today, much remains the same. Since day one, when Lloyd and Mary were joined by the original twenty-one members, our co-op has been rooted in our people—in the folks who ask more of their gear and of themselves, the stewards who care to preserving the land we play on, and in the adventurers who want to go farther.

As we continue to grow and evolve, and even as the world around us continues to do the same, we remember how far we’ve come since our first ice axe, our first shelf, and our first members, and we remain committed to doing right by Lloyd and Mary’s vision of a co-op that puts members first, until the last bell rings.

ice ax heritage

In honor of REI’s heritage, we are offering a limited edition ice axe to our members. Individually numbered, each wood handled hot-forged Grivel Mont Blanc Ice Axe strikes the balance between performance and history. Learn more about the ice axe and other member exclusive items.

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