As long as Mark Pirrie and Susan Munsinger can remember, they’ve known the scent and creak of new leather boots and the shine and pride of silver belt buckles.
It’s to be expected, since Pirrie and Munsinger – Mark’s sister whose maiden name is Pirrie – basically grew up in Western Outdoor and Norm’s News in Kalispell, both businesses having been in the family for decades.
“I was born and raised here,” Mark Pirrie said last week, sitting in Norm’s News.
At 45, Pirrie was born just a year after his father, Gordon Pirrie, purchased Western Outdoor in 1970 with a business partner. Forty-six years later, the family clothing and retail business is still going strong, with a customer base reaching back generations.
“Some people say that when they get off the plane, this is one of their first stops, Western Outdoor,” Mark Pirrie said.
Earlier this month, Mark Pirrie was honored at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet as the 2016 Businessman of the Year. The previous year, Munsinger was the Businesswoman of the Year. The awards highlight business acumen, but also a dedication to contributing to the community in meaningful ways.
That’s been a tradition at Western Outdoor for as long as the family has owned it, Mark Pirrie said, with support for local 4-H and other agricultural programs going back years.
“Instead of black-and-white pictures of the 4-H animals we bought at the fair, now we have color photos,” Mark Pirrie said with a laugh.
Gordon Pirrie bought Western Outdoor as a way to avoid leaving Montana. Before he moved to Kalispell, Gordon Pirrie was living in Billings, where his family had a ranch and he worked on the Continental Oil pipeline.
“I didn’t want to live in the South or the East,” Gordon Pirrie said. “The opportunity was over here.”
He bought the store, which was started by Jack Taylor, Archie Roe, Ace McCown, and Ben Bolton. Taylor and Roe also had a popular men’s clothing store downtown, and Gordon Pirrie remembers Norm’s News as just one of many soda fountains on Main Street.
After a few years, Gordon Pirrie followed up with purchasing the connecting buildings that held McIntosh Music – a piano and music store that sat where the boot room now lives – and Norm’s News in the 1980s. Archways – a couple of them original – now connect all three spaces.
The upstairs areas of the buildings were in need of repair, he said, and the family spent about $250,000 fixing up the space. Now there are five apartments upstairs, with space for Mark Pirrie’s wife, Beth, to teach flute lessons.
Plenty of history occurred within the walls of those buildings, Gordon Pirrie noted. For example, the basement at Norm’s used to be a dirt-floor gun range, with chunks of wood in the wall full of lead. It wasn’t cemented for years, he said. The opera house theater once seated more than 1,100 people for the showing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the early 1900s.
As kids, Mark and Susan grew up playing and working in the family business. Munsinger left briefly to live in Oklahoma for about half a year, but it only made her realize Kalispell provided the opportunities she sought.
“I didn’t know anything different (than this store),” Munsinger said. “I left and then knew I didn’t want to be an employee.”
Now, she and Mark are co-owners at Western Outdoor, while Gordon and Beth run Norm’s News. Business still has its ups and downs, Gordon Pirrie said, though the current drop-off in Canadian business is affecting many local stores.
Gordon Pirrie said he remembers when the Flathad started courting more Canadians to shop and visit, a move that opened up a new market of buyers in the valley once the northern visitors started buying retail and property here.
He also said the valley is currently in one of its growing phases, when the square footage for new retail stores and the population continue to swell, reminding him of when the Kalispell Center Mall was built.
“There’s a real influx of people again,” he said.
There are new challenges, though, with modern times. A shortage of employees across the valley has hit many businesses, Munsinger said, and Western Outdoor is also still trying to figure out how to exist most effectively with Internet shopping. While the online stores may not be competition in the traditional, brick-and-mortar sense, the money that goes there likely leaves the Flathead Valley.
“There’s only so many dollars in this valley,” Munsinger said.
“I think people are just being trained to shop differently,” Mark Pirrie said. “We can’t carry everything; we’d have to have a store 30 times this size.”
The staff they do hire at Western Outdoor are an aspect of the business that hasn’t changed, the Pirrie family said. While the faces may be different, the same characteristics of caring about the customer and friendliness still reign supreme.
That aspect won’t change, the family said, but there are some opportunities on the horizon. They’re looking into private grants and a feasibility study for the future of the upstairs apartments and the opera house, Gordon Pirrie said. Munsinger is trying to find historic pictures of the upstairs area, and asked that anyone who might have one contact her so they can have an idea of how it looked in keeping with historical traditions.
But one aspect of the future is certain: The Pirrie family doesn’t plan on uprooting any time soon.
“A lot of it is just being able to stay here and make a living, and helping people,” Munsinger said.
Western Outdoor is located at 48 S Main St. in Kalispell. For more information, call (406) 756-5818.
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