An Interview with Audrey Townsend
In this candid interview with my mom, co-founder and owner of Townsend Bertram & Company, Audrey Townsend, get to know the story behind my family and the business. A pioneer in a male dominated industry, Audrey opened TB&C with her late husband, Scott Bertram in the fall of 1988 but her adventure in the outdoor industry and speciality retail started years before that. Her unique perspective on business rooted in wisdom from her eccentric father who owned a glove company in Knoxville, Tennessee, led Audrey to build a conscious company focused on cultivating community long before it was in vogue. With gumption and grace, she grew not just her business but her family, having me three years after opening the store and my sister two and a half years later.
Now as an adult running TB&C with two business partners, I am amazed at all my mom managed. Only now do I fully understand the complexities and responsibilities of owning an outdoor store . Despite her dedication to the shop, she never missed a meaningful moment in my life, always present for my dance recitals and cross country meets and birthday parties. I often ask myself, how she managed it all - a loving marriage, two kids, a vibrant community of friends, a dog, a cabin out in the country, a bountiful garden, and the store. I thought you too might be curious. As we prepare for our 30th anniversary celebration, I invite you to sit down with my mom and me to hear the story behind the store. In this intimate interview, we explore the path she foraged to build a meaningful life and a career she loved.
What got you into the outdoors? Did you know you wanted to make your passion part of your career?
I always loved being outdoors. I spent my childhood summers on my grandparent’s farm in up- state NY where we spent all day outside. In my 20’s, I worked at Camp Merrie Woode, an outdoor camp in the mountains of North Carolina. I was doing a different job in the winters so I could go back and work at camp in the summers, running their trips program. One winter I ended up in Chapel Hill and the adventure outfitter on Franklin Street, the Trail Shop, was looking for a woman who knew something about backpacks so they hired me. I thought I would go back and work at camp in the summer but I couldn’t get the time off and so I decided to stay. The owner moved to Seattle and offered me the manager position.
Tell us about your journey into retail? What did you like about it?
I never thought about going into retail but I am a people person and I loved talking to people about getting outside and traveling. Three of my best friends worked with me at the Trail Shop and we had a great time outfitting people for adventures. I like that I didn’t have to be at work untill 10 am because I am a morning person and I could go for a hike or bike ride before work everyday.
What inspired you to start Townsend Bertram & Company?
While I was working at the Trail Shop, I bought a log cabin in a neighborhood out in the country. The day I moved in I met the boy next door and we got married a year and a half later. Scott had always worked for himself and he knew how hard I worked and said if you want to do this, we need to do it on our own. We made an offer on the Trail Shop but the owner wasn’t interested in selling so we decided to open our own adventure outfitter in Carrboro.
I had been working in Chapel Hill and knew the market and felt there was room for another outfitter in the neighboring town. Weaver Street Market was opening there and I felt it would be a good location to be next to the local co-op. I really liked being in the old mill and being a part of the history of Carr Mill. I like old things and old buildings and liked that we were renovating instead of doing a new build. We commissioned the statue of a mill worker for our garden to commemorate the history behind the mall.
What was your vision for the shop and the values you based it on?
I saw starting the shop as a way to become a part of the community, creating a fun store with kind people who worked there. I wanted to outfit people whether they were going to go to Duke Forest or to Mount Blanc. I wanted the people in our community to get what they needed without having to drive to a big shopping mall. I wanted to encourage people to get outside and do what they love.
Tell us how the store got its name?
I said let’s just call it Adventure Outfitters but Scott said we need to have our names on it because it makes it unique to us. Adventure Outfitters could be anyone.
What was your biggest fear in opening your own adventure outfitting shop and what helped you overcome it?
I was young and in love and doing it with my husband and was not really fearful. We met as neighbors and lived in my house and rented his. We borrowed against his house to open the business and if it didn’t work, we figured we would just lose his property. We put our blood, sweat and tears into it and we believed it would be successful. My four years of experience at the Trail Shop was invaluable - I knew the business and the market and the product.
You opened the store the year after you got married. Tell us about the joys and challenges of working with your spouse and how you created time for your partnership outside the store.
The start-up was really fun because it was exciting. We had different roles. Scott was really creative and built the racks, did the merchandising and displays. I managed the business and employees, did the buying and accounting. We were open 6 days a week and we knew it would be good to be open 7 but we knew we needed 1 day off together. We always spent Sundays off outside together in our garden or windsurfing or hiking or biking and we didn’t talk about the shop.
What challenges did you face in the first few years?
The business was successful from the start. After a couple of years of working together, Scott and I decided that 4 walls were too much for him as he was happiest outside. At that point he quit working day to day at the store and but continued to do the creative things. Making this decision helped us avoid challenges that could have come up if we continued to work together day to day.
Three years after opening the business you had me followed two and a half years later by Ella. How did you balance family and business?
When I had you, Scott came back to work and I stayed home. I stayed home the first year with both babies and then I went back to work and he stayed home. Between the two of us, we had a lot of flexibility. Scott enjoyed being a house husband and I enjoyed being a business woman. Flexibility is a great thing about owning your own business. I felt really lucky to have so much support from Scott at home. He did all the grocery shopping, cleaning and cooking so that when I got home from work I could be with the kids and play.
What is one of your favorite memories from the shop over the past 30 years?
My favorite memories were the early days with Scott. I have many happy memories when we first got the space and roller bladed around and had picnics before we got all the products in the store. It has been a fun, creative, satisfying career and I feel so grateful for all the support from the community over the past 30 years.
I’ve always admired how you keep up with former staff and have cultivated deep friendships with folks who you work with. When you were in a more active role at the store, how did you balance being friendly and also being the boss?
I tried to treat employees as coworkers rather than being the boss. I liked working with people rather than having people work for me. We all worked together and I didn’t feel like I had to be the boss which allowed me to cultivate meaningful relationships. Some of my best friends are people I met at the shop 30 years ago.
As a business owner, there is always stress. How did you manage your stress and stay in the moment?
I think living out in the country 30 minutes away from work helped me focus on my garden and my family outside of work. This helped me de-stress.
In 30 years of a thriving business you’ve had many successes. What would you say you feel most proud of.
The most satisfying thing has been the number of employees who have written me over the years to tell me how much their time working at TB&C meant to them and how much they learned from it.
Did you think Ella or me would be involved?
I hoped that you would and I am thrilled that you are and have been. Ella contributed to our parties by singing. It has been really great to have you as part of the business.
What has it been like to watch me get involved at the store?
It has been exciting because it has always been a part of you but you never worked there until your 20s. It reminds me of me when I was younger. When Scott was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it was so great you were there because it was easier for me to walk away. I am forever grateful for you as I got to spend so much quality time with him in the last years of his life.
What’s next for you?
Deciding the future direction of the shop. I am grateful to you, Taylor, Sara and the whole staff because you all have done such a great job taking care of the business. Together we are figuring out the future of TB&C.
What is your advice to entrepreneurs who love the outdoors?
Follow your passion.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I would like to be remembered as a nice person to work with.
I am grateful to have such an incredible mother who instilled a love of the outdoors in me and taught me the art of retail.