ORONO — There’s an institution on Route 2 about halfway between Bangor and downtown Orono.
For more than a century, Gass Horse Supply has been, as its motto says, “Providing for Horse and Rider.”
No company stays in business that long without evolving along the way, as third-generation owner Barry Gass explained as he detailed its history.
The business was started circa 1910, across the road from the current location, by Gass’s grandfather, Barney, a Russian immigrant.
“He had a farm where he raised cattle and draft horses, and repaired harnesses,” Gass explained. “It was also a livery depot, where people traveling from out of town would change out horses and continue on their journey.”
Barney had a large farm family of 11 children. Barry Gass’s father was John, the youngest child, who moved the operation to its current location in 1955. A grand-opening calendar from those days still hangs behind the checkout counter.
“He was the only child who continued on with equine sales and tack,” Gass said.
In those days, the bulk of the business was selling draft horses and harnesses to the big pulp and paper companies, who used the horses to haul timber out of the woods.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, lumber horses were on the way out and skidders were on the way in, so John Gass started making changes in his inventory.
“He decided to alter the business,” Gass said. “He took on a line of saddle-horse tack, and that blossomed, as more and more [recreational riders] needed those supplies.”
Following the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy,” an interest in all things Western swept the nation, and John Gass added Western wear to his stock.
John Gass passed away in 2002, and the store closed down for about five years. Barry Gass started reopening part time in 2007 and full time again in 2009.
Gass Horse Supply returned with equine tack supplies and Western clothing, but, not surprisingly, no draft-horse harnesses.
Today, Barry Gass faces the same problem as his father before him: Finding the right inventory for his changing customer base and staying current with new trends in the industry.
About two-thirds of his sales are saddlery and tack while the remaining third is everything else, including a marked increase in Western wear.
Gass offers supplies for both English and Western styles of riding including roping and team penning supplies, and is now branching out into an expanded line of Western boots and a higher-end Western saddle line.
He also places many special orders for his customers, since there’s only so much he can carry in his 3,400-square-foot store. He also ships orders all across the country.
“The name of the game is to be flexible, to have what people want in-stock or be willing to order it when you don’t,” Gass said.
Unlike his father, Barry Gass has to compete with a world full of sellers on the Internet. But he’s decided to make the Internet work for him.
“We embrace it,” he said. “We use it as a tool: our web page, on-line search engines, social media, all have a place and are of benefit.”
But most important is customer service, from Gass and his two employees, Jillian Marcho and Dawn Kirby.
“I’m blessed to have such competent customer-focused employees that care about the business, this store, and truly enjoy working with each person that walks through the front door, calls on the phone, or communicates with us electronically,” Gass said.
“We take the time to know our customers, greet them by name, talk about their horses and provide detailed information about the products that they are interested in,” he added. “In this fast-paced world of self-checkout lines and stores where it seems there is no one knowledgeable to assist you, that’s something that people need, love and miss. We want this store to feel like home and be comfortable! People often come in and say, ‘The smell of leather and the look of the store, it’s the same place I remember from when I was a kid. It’s so nice that you haven’t changed too much!’ “
Gass Horse Supply, 476 Main St. in Orono, is open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and by appointment. For more information, call 866-8593, email info@GassHorseSupply.com or visit www.GassHorseSupply.com or on Facebook (www.Facebook.com/GassHorseSupply.)