When Second Gear owner-manager Chris Webster became a whitewater paddler and raft guide two decades ago his life transformed. As a kid and young adult, he lacked confidence in himself. But on the water, all was different.
“Guiding a raft and managing a group of strangers was empowering,” says Webster who on his off days can often be found navigating his favorite stretch of river: Section IX of the French Broad. As he gained experience as a guide, Webster says he developed a sense of confidence that flowed into other aspects of his life. Guiding also gave Webster a sense of community with other guides and boaters.
But raising two boys with his wife Julia and managing Second Gear’s consignment department, squeezing in time to paddle is tricky. But that’s okay with Webster, who prefers to join his family for supper. In fact, sitting at the dinner table is exactly why he drifted to Second Gear in the first place.
Webster, who grew up in Dallas in Gaston County became a social worker after graduating from Western Carolina University. After several years counseling kids and a stint as a stay-at-home dad, he spent half-a-decade working at a large-box retailer. “At the time it was a great job for a single person, but with a new family I wanted to be home more,” he says. In 2013, Second Gear partner Eric Smythers encouraged Webster to fill an open position at the shop. He took the bait (and a paycut) and eventually invested time and money for an ownership share in the business. The career choice was without regret, claims Webster. For one, he’s always home for dinner and has more flexibility to participate in his boys activities. There’s also less pressure to sell gear and more time to connect at a deeper level with patrons.
And, like paddling, taking a leadership role at Second Gear delivered to Webster another splash of self-assurance. “I wanted to have ownership in something that I could feel good about and use my skills and experience to make better,” he says. Among Webster’s substantial contributions to the store was ramping up the volume and selection of retail gear to fully outfit folks for a night in the woods or day on the river.
“It’s less about making dollars here. We’re able to get people to the woods affordably so the outdoors is accessible to folks without big wallets.” That mission, says Webster, is more urgent than ever during the pandemic and economic crisis, where the outdoors has been a precious escape from an altered world.
Make no mistake, re-opening Second Gear after the initial shut down due to Covid-19 was unnerving for Webster, who self-describes as a mild hypochondriac. However, after settling into a routine of cleaning and enforcing safety protocols, he’s adapted. “I feel like we’ve been able to serve the public by reopening,” he says. “Getting people back outdoors has been awesome.”