How a viral documentary saved the first Black-owned gear shop
A stroke of good luck saved Slim Pickins Outfitters from closing during the pandemic. Now, the owners are using the new interest in their shop to help people of color find autonomy, ownership, and space in the outdoors.
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Jahmicah Dawes pointed to the surface of the pond. “Do you see the fish?” Three-year-old Silas looked over his father’s shoulder from his perch in the child carrier and asked, “Where?” Heather Dawes took a photo of father and son, making sure not to awaken one-year-old Finis, who had fallen asleep strapped to her chest at the start of the hike. The family was surrounded by lush green hills in an untouched natural area in North Central Texas that will become Palo Pinto Mountains State Park in a couple of years. For a few hours, they walked through fields of wildflowers and up and down rocky inclines, exploring a park that did not yet have trails.
Such peaceful moments have been rare for Jahmicah and Heather Dawes lately. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Daweses—like so many other small-business owners—went into a dark period of debt, depression, and fear for the survival of their specialty shop, Slim Pickins Outfitters (SPO). But then a lucky break led to a viral documentary about their family, a surprise influx of cash, and a second chance for SPO. For the small-town entrepreneurs, the ups and downs of the past year have been overwhelming. Especially coming to terms with just how important their shop is in the outdoor industry.
First of its kind
Opening an outdoor gear shop wasn’t exactly a lifelong dream for the Daweses. In 2012, Jahmicah graduated from Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, with a fashion merchandising degree. Stephenville is about an hour and a half west of Dallas-Fort Worth, amid a treasure trove of outdoor adventure. That same year he met Heather. The two stayed in town so Heather could finish her studies at Tarleton State, with no clear plans to settle down there.
Back then, the idea of starting an outdoor store was on their radar, but only as a joke: “My friends and I had this running gag, like one day someone’s going to open an outdoor shop in Stephenville, make a whole bunch of money, and hit it rich,” Jahmicah says.
Right after the couple married in 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and racial tensions increased in Stephenville, a white-majority city where the Klu Klux Klan held a rally in 2007. The couple considered moving to a more diverse place that would be welcoming of their interracial relationship and future children, even applying to jobs across the U.S. In 2016, a sneaker company offered Jahmicah a job if he was willing to move to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. For a man who loved sneaker culture, it seemed like an easy answer. But Jahmicah had something else brewing in his mind.
“I remember it as clear as day,” Heather says. “We were driving to my parents’ house and he pitched SPO to me.” The old joke had finally started to make business sense to Jahmicah, and he figured they’d have the support of the community they’d been part of for years. “I said, ‘We’ll do it. We’ll try it. But when this fails, we are out of here. I’m not living here anymore.’”
So the couple opened SPO in 2017—unknowingly becoming the first Black-owned outdoor gear shop in the U.S. In fact, there weren’t many Black-owned outdoor businesses in the industry, period.
“I always say the joke is on us because we opened the shop and we’re definitely not rich,” Jahmicah laughs. But between 2017 and 2020, SPO did well, and for the most part, revenue increased each year. Though Heather wasn’t completely sold on the idea of SPO at the beginning, by 2020 she was all in. “My attitude toward the store had definitely changed,” she says. “We were both doing things to make it work. I was making sure we could make payroll.” On weekends and days off from her full-time job as executive director of a local nonprofit, “I work the shop or do back-office stuff so we don’t have to pay other people to do that,” she says.
Jahmicah, Heather, their family, and their staff all play different roles in the store’s success. Heather can usually be found behind the cash register, managing the finances, or running the shop’s social media. Finis maneuvers around displays and clothing stands in a baby walker, while Silas plays with a toy cash register on a bench or follows his dad around the store.
Creative endeavors and community engagement are Jahmicah’s forte, and his vision is apparent when you enter SPO. The sounds of blues, rock, or folk music on vinyl greet you as you inhale the smell of charred wood, smoky embers, and spice from burning incense, and feel Bill Murray, the family’s basset hound, nuzzling your feet. The shop holds a colorful array of outdoor gear, like apparel, shoes, blankets, water bottles, bags, mugs, and vintage items displayed on wood-pallet walls.
On weekends, locals crowd the shop for community events like yoga or bikepacking classes. Jahmicah has created an experience that fits with one of his many sayings: “It may be Stephenville out there, but it’s ‘Stephen-Chill’ in here.”
But just as the store was growing steadily and flirting with success, the pandemic hit, and everything they’d worked so hard to build came very close to slipping through their fingers.
An unexpected call
In 2020, “we were heading into year three and feeling really good,” Heather says. “We had paid down a lot of debt. But the week that we had been open for three years is when we had to close down.”
SPO closed its brick-and-mortar shop for part of March and all of April per the state’s orders, then reopened with retail-to-go and limited in-person shopping in summer. Around the time Jahmicah and Heather celebrated the birth of their second child that May, the future of their business became of great concern. Bills were due, and though they received a U.S. Small Business Association (SBA) loan and one month’s free rent from the retail building’s owner, their debt increased as sales dropped significantly. Jahmicah had to get a second job working a stock position overnight at Home Depot, then a grocery store, through the summer so SPO could make payroll.
“It’s not a super-high-income area within a 40-mile radius,” Heather says. “A lot of people don’t have disposable income. In a pandemic, you need food and water, and to make sure that your bills are paid, and that’s it.”
With each month that passed, the possibility of having to close the shop increased. “I remember going to Google to search ‘how do you sell a business,’” Jahmicah recalls. “I called a buddy who had bought an outdoor business and asked him, ‘Did you have a realtor or was there a broker?’ He broke down the process but then said, ‘Hey, you’re not there yet. When it’s that time, I will help you however I can,’” Jahmicah says. “That held some weight. I said, ‘Okay then, we will suffer a little bit longer.’”
And suffer they did, until July 2020, when they received a surprising call.
The Outbound Collective, a digital media platform, wanted the Daweses and SPO to be the focus of its next documentary in the #EveryoneOutside film series. Brian Heifferon, co-founder and CEO, learned about SPO through an Instagram Live event that July, hosted by the PR firm JAM Collective, in which Jahmicah spoke about representation in the outdoor industry. Heifferon realized the family and their shop would be a perfect fit.
“The goal of our film series is to elevate the stories of remarkable individuals who’ve traditionally been excluded from the outdoor industry’s dominant narrative,” he says. “We thought their purpose and their story really needed to reach more people.”
A crew flew out in November 2020. After a week of shooting, and learning the full extent of SPO’s precarious financial situation, The Outbound Collective and its partner production company, Wondercamp, suggested starting a GoFundMe campaign for the shop.
The Daweses were a bit hesitant at first to share personal details about their family life and financial affairs. “It was a tough decision to make because the video and the GoFundMe would be public,” Jahmicah says. “We prayed about it.” Deciding that the trade-off was worth it, they ultimately moved forward with the crowdfunding campaign, launching with a goal of $142,000 at the same time the film was released last February. Donations flooded in from friends, strangers as far away as New Zealand, and businesses like Taos Ski Valley. By the end, more than 4,400 donors gave a total of $172,001. (And the movie was selected for four film festivals this year, including the Roxbury International and Mountainfilm.)
“Having so many people we don’t know donate to the GoFundMe was a humbling experience,” Jahmicah says. “It shows that what we are doing here is important and resonates with people.”
A second chance
The Daweses never expected the barrage of nationwide support they received. The store’s Instagram went from 6,000 to 21,000 followers in a few days and the online shop saw a flood of orders.
“We were down to the very bare bones of product because we didn’t have any money,” Heather says. They sold out of everything in 12 hours. Eventually people could only pre-order products; SPO’s branded T-shirts and hats proved especially popular.
“We did half the revenue of 2020 in the month of February 2021,” Heather says. “Granted, our 2020 numbers were very down, and sales have definitely fallen off since then, but it was still better than what we expected.”
Jahmicah and Heather used the GoFund- Me donations to pay off the store’s debt and their investors—so they now completely own the business (not the building). But though it’s easy to assume the donations solved all of SPO’s problems, the campaign didn’t overwhelmingly change their lives. It just helped the owners get back on their feet. “When we tallied up what we made with the GoFundMe, it was what we needed to essentially start over,” Jahmicah says. “I’m very grateful for it, but we’re in an industry where we are still 10 steps behind. I get to reenter the building, but I’m still at the back of the line.”
That said, the Daweses have plenty of ideas to move forward. “It’s been cool to see our online store grow,” Heather says. “We hope that continues.”
Jahmicah chuckles and raises his eyebrows. “We need it to.”
SPO rehired a retail consultant they’d worked with in the past to create a plan to keep the store thriving. “We are currently working off of a buying plan and have specific financial goals for the coming year,” Heather says. “We’re working to bolster our e-commerce as well so we can get our products, especially our private-label products, out to a larger market.”
In addition to the retail consultant, SPO will tap the expertise of a volunteer advisory board that includes the likes of Julie Atherton of JAM Collective; Heifferon of the Outbound Collective; Alex Bailey of Black Outside; Koby Crooks, an outdoor independent sales representative with Alpine Cowboy; and Chad Haring, vice president and general merchandising manager of Dick’s Sporting Goods. All agreed to help after being inspired by the film.
“The goal is to find people that have an expertise and have them help us grow our brand and business,” Heather explains.
Many small businesses, especially BIPOC-owned businesses, struggled or closed during the pandemic. So to be in this position—where the Daweses now own their shop and have an array of business experts at their back—feels like a blessing to Heather and Jahmicah.
“The fact that we were put on firm footing from the GoFundMe is really impactful,” Heather says. “It creates a different level of encouragement and wind in our sails. When things get tough we will always remember the kindness of those folks and feel a commitment to them.”
Paving the way
The welcoming and inclusive atmosphere of SPO draws people like Alex Herrera, a Mexican American fly-fishing guide with Living Waters Fly Fishing. Herrerra also attended Tarleton State University, just down the street from SPO, but never knew the store existed until a friend from Montana sent him a link to the Outbound Collective film in February. As soon as he could, Herrera visited the shop, and he and Jahmicah quickly bonded over fly-fishing.
“It was such a cool thing to see a Black-owned shop in a town that would otherwise not want it here,” Herrera says. “Who else is going to set up a shop across from a Confederate monument? I said, ‘That’s a place I need to go to because I’ve felt the judgment in this industry.’ Being someplace like this, where I can kill time and feel comfortable every second, is amazing.”
Herrera wasn’t the only person moved by the documentary to visit SPO. Some have taken weekend trips from Austin, while others driving cross-country or to Big Bend National Park have rerouted to stop at SPO and meet a family they admire.
The Daweses sometimes feel conflicted about their newfound fame, particularly how to authentically approach their new role as influencers in the outdoor industry. As Heather puts it: “Who wants to see us? We’re normal people.”
Still, the couple is forging ahead and learning more about branding and partnerships, expanding their marketing, and coming up with ways to build on the energy they received from the documentary. Jahmicah has plenty of ideas for the future—a podcast, blogs, gear reviews, brand and media partnerships, and nonprofit work. He has dreams of starting an incubator and accelerator program for people of color with outdoor business ideas.
“I was in REI the other day,” Jamicah says, “and got recognized by an Asian American employee who said, ‘I want to thank you for what you’re doing.’ He then told me some of his business ideas. Why isn’t an incubator program with financial and business resources for people of color not a thing already? I know I’m not the first one to think of this, so where is this idea getting snuffed out?” (SPO doesn’t have the bandwidth to start such a program now, but encourages any outdoor business with the capability to start a BIPOC incubator program to take the idea and run with it.) In the meantime, SPO will support BIPOC-owned businesses by looking for ways to carry their brands in-store and providing resources or a road map on what the Daweses did with their shop so others can follow.
“History shows that we, people of color, were the first stewards, cultivators, and conservationists of the land,” Jahmicah says. “Even if the papers or documents don’t say we own it, we were here, we worked and toiled over it, and that shows ownership.
“Just because we’re the first, we don’t want to be last. Even if we end up going down, we’ve shown it can work, should work, and that there should be more Black and brown bodies in the outdoors.”
It’s this spirit that Jahmicah and Heather instill in their sons, especially Silas, who loves interacting with visitors of SPO just like his father. Silas never hesitates to approach customers and ask them their names before starting a conversation. Perhaps it comes with the knowledge that SPO is his space.
“I tell Silas, ‘This is our shop. I want you to repeat it. I want you to meditate on that,’” Jahmicah says as he watches his son play. “With that, comes a sense of ownership and responsibility, and a drive to fight even more for it.
“Say it with me, Silas, ‘This is ours. This is ours.’”
This story first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of our print magazine.