by Catherine Jozwik, Photos Vince Bushell Milwaukee’s oldest retailer knows a little bit about providing quality and great customer service. For 165 years, Laacke and Joys has been Milwaukee’s main store for outdoor sporting goods and gear, and despite the economic downturn, business is still going strong. The store has four locations: downtown Milwaukee, Brookfield, and Mequon, along with an equestrian sports shop called Hall Saddlery in Sussex. It also has a manufacturing division on the two top floors of the downtown location, which produces fabric products such as parking meter hoods, bags, and curtains. The Riverwest Currents sat down with Elizabeth Handle, Laacke and Joys’ marketing manager, and Bruce Wolfenberger, the vice president of retail operations, to ask them a few questions about their products and the importance of local business. As Milwaukee’s oldest retailer, you’ve been able to maintain customer and community loyalty even through tough economic times. What’s your secret? Well, historically, we’re dealing with second- and-third generation families from Milwaukee. We’ll get people that come in here and tell us they bought skis and tents from us forty years ago. We provided good customer service before customers even knew about good customer service. We’ve got good quality products and honest people working for us, and we also change to fit the times – instead of selling big boats with V-8 engines, for example, we’ve made a shift to more natural, quiet sports such as canoeing and kayaking. We sell a variety of products, including clothing, footwear, patio furniture, skis, and snowboards. Our products may not be cheap, but they’re top quality – buy a fleece jacket somewhere else and it might fall apart after a couple years. Our fleeces will last you twelve years or more. One of the bestknown secrets about Laacke and Joys is that you can rent canoes and kayaks from us – for $30 a day. You can take it out on the Milwaukee River or somewhere else for a day trip. Or you can keep it longer and take it camping. Do you buy from local merchants? What are your top-selling brands? We do buy from many Wisconsin and Midwestern companies – Wigwam, a company based in Sheboygan, makes socks, and Johnson Worldwide, a Racine company, makes tents and Old Town Canoes, and Winona Canoes is located in Minnesota. For big sellers, North Face is huge, due to the diversity of their product line and the fact that they sell footware. Columbia is popular – we were the first store in the Midwest to carry their products. Pantagonia is also a great brand, very environmentally friendly. We’ve worked with Patagonia and Milwaukee Riverkeeper on various projects. In which ways does Laacke and Joys benefit the Milwaukee business community? Laacke and Joys is a member of and partners with many organizations, such as River Revitalization Foundation, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and Milwaukee County Parks, to name a few. We participate in many different health fairs, as we feel that our business promotes a healthy lifestyle through outdoor sports, and support Preps Plus, an organization that supports local high school athletes. We’ve also been sponsors of Jazz in The Park and Family Fun Days, an event that takes place along Bradford Beach’s newly renovated beach area. We try to be an asset to the community any way we can – for example, Annushka Peck, an artist working with the downtown IN:SITE art installation, is using our boathouse for part of her art exhibit. One major event we have coming up is the ninth annual Milwaukee River Challenge, in which we join up with the Milwaukee Rowing Club. That will take place on September 19. This will be a way that teams can test their endurance on the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers.