Horse sense: Businessman seeks to fill niche for tack shops

Posted Aug. 07, 2009, at 6:12 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — As a child, Barry Gass worked in his father’s store, helping to set up displays or dealing with customers. It was a requirement to help out with the family business, Gass Horse Supply, but Gass grew to love the work and spending time with his father, John Gass, in the tack shop on U.S. Route 2.

“I got a lot of satisfaction out of helping customers,” Gass, a 1980 Orono High School graduate, said recently of his years in the shop. “It was a feel-good business.”

In late 2001, however, as John Gass’ health was failing, Barry Gass closed the store, which had been open nearly 50 years.

Although the shop was shuttered with John Gass’ death in February 2002 after a struggle with pancreatic cancer, Gass never gave up on the businesses. Now 47, living in Waterboro in York County and working as an information technology professional, Gass reopened the tack shop in late May with help from manager Sheila Griffin.

Gass said he had sales offers for the land and buildings on the site over the years, but held on to the business.

In 2008 he made the decision to reopen, primarily because he missed the family business, but also because he saw an opportunity to serve a region that could use another tack shop.

“It’s not that the other shops weren’t serving their customers, but I felt more was needed,” Gass said. “There are a lot of horse people in central and northern Maine, and the folks [in northern Maine] just don’t have the options available for horse supplies. That was the niche my father fulfilled, without a lot of fanfare, and I wanted to do that.”

Gass invested several thousand dollars in renovating the roof, plumbing, heating and electrical systems before the shop opened again. Several months earlier he had met Griffin, who owned the former Hoof’N It Tack Shop in Bangor, and she agreed to manage Gass’ business. Gass also bought some of Griffin’s stock and stock from the Double A Tack Shop in Holden that recently closed.

Griffin is a key piece of the business, Gass said, as he can’t be in the area daily with his job and family in southern Maine.

“I knew it was a great fit,” Gass said. “She wanted to stay in the business, working with customers, working with equipment and merchandise. Frankly, she’s wonderful at it. It allowed her to stay in the business and me to get back into the business.”

Since reopening the store, Gass said, he and Griffin have had a lot of visitors who have seen the open sign on Gass’ property, which is about two-tenths of a mile north of the Orono-Veazie town line, and wandered in to find the interior similar to the old shop.

“People have made comments like ‘It’s so wonderful to be back in the store again,’” Gass said. “They’ve said obviously they miss my father, but they’re so glad we’re open. This type of tack shop has been missed.”

Susan Bowman, who has owned Katahdin Trail Saddlery in Newport for six years, said there are fewer and fewer tack shops north of Augusta, especially since Double A and Hoof’N It closed.

“I think it may be because the economy probably is down somewhat, but we’re busier than ever,” she said. “We draw from all over. … We’re established now, and I have a lot of clients from Canada.”

“I think [Gass will] do fine,” Bowman added.

Although Gass Horse Supply always carried the basic supplies needed to care for horses, one of the ways the shop thrived was adapting to trends and the needs of its clientele. In its early years, Gass said, his father catered to the owners of draft horses and livestock and was busy with harness repair.

In the 1960s, the business expanded to products for racehorses and the harness-racing industry. After that business tailed off, customers became interested in the Western style of riding, then the English style, with different equipment and outfits for each style.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as movies such as “Urban Cowboy” glorified the rodeo lifestyle, customers who didn’t necessarily have horses began buying items such as cowboy boots, embroidered shirts and square-dancing supplies.

That continued into the 1990s.

Now that the store is open again, Gass said he and Griffin have noticed customers are buying items to outfit children who are going to summer camp to learn how to ride in the English style. Boots, britches and helmets have been selling well, he said.

Gass is hoping to again cater to the harness-racing industry, and the shop is starting to get into easy-entry carts that anyone with a horse can hook up and drive.

Just like his father believed, diversity will be key to a thriving business, especially in the recession.

“I’m confident in our economy, and when it comes around we will be there and be established,” he said. “We’ll be servicing an important niche. … It’s been wonderful [to be open again]. I come up a lot. I’m burning a lot of miles on the car, but it’s to be expected in the early days of re-establishing a business.”

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