I am old enough to remember the very first REI retail store at 5th and Pike in Seattle. It was a one-room place above a small downtown theater. In the early days, we would drive three hours over a snowy mountain pass once a year to attend their "annual meeting—annual sale". As I remember, the store was open during the evening only for this special event. Since REI is a non-profit co-op, I think they were required to hold an annual member's meeting. I didn't care about the meeting and elections; I was there only for the gear. I looked forward to that special event all year long. I would save up my scarce dollars to make one big purchase (usually to replace Army surplus gear) and to pick up some small sale items.
The early stores were staffed by highly knowledgeable and active outdoor experts. It had an undeniable charm that emanated from walls decorated with all manner of gear, new and old. REI used to be the only place I would purchase new outdoor gear. It is sad that now I seldom visit their stores or buy from them. Times have changed, outdoor gear has changed and retail sales have changed.
Contemporary REI stores have a lot going for them: good personal service, great return policy, good rebate and dividend system and highly organized and useful website. REI is obviously a successful and full-service corporation, but has it lost its soul in the process? For someone with a long memory, the answer has to be a qualified ‘Yes’.