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Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Best of the great outdoors, indoors


SEATTLE -- Ten-year-old Patricia "Tishie" Taylor pushed her climbing helmet back with her shoulder and glanced down. "I can't go this way," she said.

Three meters below her, the young man firmly holding her safety rope smiled up. "You look OK," he said. "Try moving over to the orange holds and following them up."

Tishie looked up the remaining 12 meters of the climbing tower, then over at the orange holds. She dipped her hands into the chalk bag at her belt and, after a last moment's hesitation, moved nimbly up the wall.

This isn't some exclusive climbing school or expensive Rocky Mountain outdoor leadership course. It's a store in downtown Seattle -- the massive flagship store of REI (Recreational Equipment, Incorporated).

REI is America's largest outdoor equipment cooperative, and because Tishie's family are members, her climb was free.

The pinnacle of the climbing wall, almost 20 meters high and encased in glass, is the most prominent feature of REI, which opened in 1996. The store sells every kind of equipment imaginable for all kinds of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, skiing, kayaking and climbing.

It's like a Disneyland for outdoor lovers, a huge space all wood and stone with the occasional steel structure. There's no roller coaster, but you can road test any of the 350 bikes displayed in the store on a 143-meter mountain-bike circuit snaking through REI's grounds, which are landscaped to mimic terrain you might encounter in the forests of the northwest.

There's no haunted house, but there is a special black room with a road scene painted on the walls, where you can try out any of the dozen or so bike lights sold in the store.

There's no Big Splash Mountain either, but a small stream does gurgle through the camping section so you can see how the portable water filters perform.

And if you've never fired up a camping stove or lantern, there's an area nearby where staff will demonstrate how to light the stove or lantern of your choice.

Those boots feel fine on the store's floor, but how will they do scrambling uphill and down? No problem, walk the shoe department's sample trail -- it includes all types of terrain, even a wobbly foot bridge.

There's a station where a rowing simulation helps the staff fit you with a perfect paddle. And of course there are dozens and dozens of skis and snowboards.

The one place that brings a smile to everyone's face is the Gore-Tex Rain room: A glassed-in booth where simulated rain will let you (and anyone laughing outside) see just how waterproof that jacket you're trying on really is.

The store even has its own GPS satellite system that will pinpoint your location anyplace in the store.

Add maps, guides, gourmet camping-food packets, brand-name outdoor clothing and even foldable Frisbees, and you've got the ultimate toy store for the outdoor-loving kid in all of us.

Computer kiosks scattered throughout the store help you find what you're looking for and even determine the proper clothing layering system for the sport you are going to undertake. For those who bring their kids along, there is an outdoor theme area for kids to play in while parents shop.

When shopper's fatigue sets in there's a huge stone fireplace (complete with roaring wood fire) and comfy chairs to plop down in. The large second-floor snack bar features all kinds of "wraps," a cre^pe-like sandwich based on the healthy, ethnic-flavored tastes of the membership.

To plan a trip, or simply fantasize about one, there is a large book and map section with a counter staffed by the National Park Service. They're happy to give advice about trips in the Northwest or any of America's national parks. For more armchair fantasizing, or to decorate your house, famed wildlife photographer Art Wolfe has a gallery of his work here, too.

The store is a roaring success: More than 2 million visitors a year pull the ice-ax handles on REI's massive front doors and enter.

"It's a tourist destination. We even get a fair share of tourists from Japan now," says REI Public Affairs Associate Karin Zaugg. "We have over 80,000 members in Japan and just opened a similar store in Minami Machida."

The scale of REI's success and popularity would surely surprise Lloyd Anderson, who led the group of 23 Seattle-area climbers who in 1938 established REI with two goals: to sell outdoor equipment at reasonable prices and to share profits with members.

More than 1.6 million members now share in those profits, getting a "dividend" based on their purchases at the end of each year.

An old gas station served as REI's store for six of its early years, but that wouldn't even house the hat department these days. The new flagship store still has the community-based, give-some-back philosophy the founders envisioned, though. The large meeting room has a full calendar of mostly free lectures and workshops, everything from "Basic Bicycle Maintenance" and "Puget Sound Sea Kayaking," to "Travel India on a Shoestring" and the intriguing "Living with Carnivores."

Whether you love the great outdoors or just the idea of it, this is the place to come both for shopping and some true indoor-outdoor entertainment.

The REI flagship store is at 222 Yale Ave. North, just minutes from the center of Seattle. It is accessible by public bus, but easier by car. Get a map on the Web at www.rei.com

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