Mitch, Mode, Mel's Trading Post

Mitch Mode says Mel’s Trading Post constantly evolves with ever-changing consumer needs and recreational trends. The Business News photo by Lisa Haefs

For 75 years, Mel’s Trading Post has been helping people have fun.

“Mel’s is a Rhinelander institution,” Jaclene Tetzlaff, publisher of “The New North” community magazine, says. “It is always one of the first stops for travelers. There are very few businesses that cater so carefully to customers while maintaining such a wide array and quality of merchandise.”

The store, in business since 1946, has adapted over three-quarters of a century to changing consumer needs and recreation trends, moving from a selling everything from toys, televisions and pool tables to one specializing exclusively in meeting the outdoor recreational needs of Northwoods residents and visitors.

“While some things are the same, a number of things have certainly changed over the years,” second-generation owner Mitch Mode says. “We continue to evolve to meet the needs of our customers.”

One thing that has never changed is the quality of the products.

“We have always tried to stock high-quality merchandise instead of ‘more-trouble-than-it’sworth’ gear,” Mode says. “Our customers can leave with confidence that the gear they are buying has been tested by the staff and has succeeded in the field. It is not a cookie-cutter approach.”

You could say Mel’s started due to an accident.

Mel Mode, Mitch’s father, was a talented baseball pitcher with major league aspirations. He played for the local teams, including the Rhinelander Shorties, and flirted with the professional ranks after a stint in the U.S. Army.

“He had a contract to play in the big leagues for the Chicago Cubs, but a back injury ended his career before he could report,” Mode says.

The Cubbies’ loss was Rhinelander’s gain. Mel returned to Rhinelander and in 1946 went to work for Del Stengl in a small sporting goods store, The Trading Post, at 43 S. Brown St.

Stengl, who had operated businesses in Rhinelander since 1932, sold The Trading Post to Mel in 1953 to focus on potato growing near Starks. The men returned to partnership in 1960 in order to expand the business, purchasing a new location on Brown Street, a couple blocks north of the original location, in the former Woolworth’s building.

The Rhinelander Daily News labeled the new store “one of the most modern sports shops in northern Wisconsin” with 6,700 square feet of display space.

“Mel and Del look upon the new store not merely as a change in location but as an expansion project,” the newspaper reported. “Additional models and varieties of merchandise give the Trading Post a complete line of fishing equipment, sporting goods of all kinds, boats and motor, bicycles, toys and games and dog supplies.”

Del eventually retired and Mel bought the business. He quit selling televisions and appliances, and added small engine sales and service, including acting as the area’s first Honda dealership.

Forty years ago, Mel’s Trading Post shifted again, this time to the former Montgomery Ward building at 105 South Brown St., its present location. The building features a spacious, open concept but is far from sterile. Racks filled with the latest in sporting goods and apparel cover original hardwood floors. The creaky stairs to the upstairs loft, filled with cross-country skis and kayaks, announce customers’ arrival far before they appear.

Mode and his four siblings all grew up in the shop.

“The store had a popcorn stand and that’s where we all got our start,” he said. “That was our summer job. We would wheel it out every day and pop and sell bags of popcorn. I got 75 cents an hour.”

The popcorn stand is long gone as are the pool tables and small engines. In other signs of evolution, Mel’s discontinued selling downhill skis, once a business mainstay, a few years back, shifting its focus to the growing silent sports areas of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboards along with canoes, bicycles and hunting gear and apparel.

“Dad was always willing to see what was changing and was willing to take a chance,” Mode says, explaining that studying the changing market demand is key to success.

Cross-country skis are good example.

“It’s an area we never originally considered and now it is a strong category for us,” Mode, a veteran of 43 editions of the famed American Birkebeiner ski race near Hayward, said. “Because we all ski, we know the importance of proper equipment and fitting. We want to make sure the pair of skis the person is buying is the right brand, style and model for the person’s physical size, ability and its intended use.”

It also all but guarantees happy, repeat customers.

“Our job is to explain the difference in the various types of equipment and help our customer choose the right equipment for his or her needs,” Mode said. “That helps ensure a good experience for them, and that is what we want.”

At buying shows, Mode says he often searches out the smaller booths, with the newest and perhaps surprising innovations. Smartwool socks, now an industry standard, are an example. Mel’s started selling them early.

“Our goal is to find things that we believe in,” Mode said. “We participate in all of these activities — whether it be hunting or fishing or skiing or paddling — and know the importance of having good gear. When we sell you a kayak, we have paddled that brand and type of kayak.”

Customer service is another Mel’s trademark, something that can’t be replicated by purchasing gear online or in a big-box store.

“It’s one thing to look at a picture on a screen and another to see it in person and talk with people who use the equipment face-to-face,” Mode said. “At Mel’s, you can rely on the personal experience of people who have been off the pavement.”

At 75 years old, and with 40 years at the same location, Mel’s is the major league business its founder envisioned. The outdoor recreation industry is booming, and the store has a “farm team” of young managers trained in the company traditions of hard work, customer service and selling what you use.

“We continually look at trends and try to get ahead of the curve,” Mode said. “We’re a small business so we can be nimble. A business that does not change is a business that is going to fail. We have every intention of being here for many years to come.”