To say Gazelle Sports sells high quality running, soccer and athletic lifestyle apparel and footwear would certainly be true, but that hardly tells the whole story. Each and every day, we strive to provide the best customer care, building relationships and empowering and inspiring others to move. Our mission is to foster and support an active community in every place we call home, giving back more than we take. This was true when we opened our first store in downtown Kalamazoo back in 1985, and it’s still true today with our five stores across Michigan. At the start of it, there were just two guys who were working at a local Kalamazoo running specialty store. The year was 1983. The hair was big, the apparel colors garishly bright and the shorts were super short (for the men anyway). Chris Lampen-Crowell and Bruce Johnson were having a ball – two young guys hanging with like-minded people, selling running gear and, mostly unbeknownst to them, learning the importance of exceptional customer care and relationship-building.
A change in ownership caused Bruce and Chris to develop a plan to buy the store themselves. With bank support to buy the existing business, they ran into a wall when the current owner decided to raise the price at the last minute. Undeterred, Bruce and Chris decided to start a store of their own. Thus was born the dream of Gazelle Sports. But Chris and Bruce couldn’t find a bank to buy into the dream. Seven different banks were unwilling to loan the duo start-up funds. In a time before Kickstarter, this should have been the death knell of the dream. Chris and Bruce, however, knew that they had something to offer the Kalamazoo community and were not ready to give up. They were smart enough to know the value of all of the relationships they had built over the years, and reached out to family and friends for support. They were men on a mission. And other people started buying into that mission, literally. In short order, they raised just over $60,000 to start their running store. To say that everything went smoothly from here on out would not be an entirely true statement. The two found an 1,800 square foot space in downtown Kalamazoo in July 1985 that would become the home of Gazelle Sports. Thanks to timing constraints that involved the landlord needing to sell off some fur coats, plus an over-eager postcard mailing promising a December 7 grand opening (to a mailing list of their former employer that just happened to find its way into Chris and Bruce’s hands), the duo found themselves taking occupancy of the space on December 1 with one week to prepare for the promised grand opening. It was within this timeframe that they had to demolish and rebuild just about everything in the store. But once again, friends and family – the community that Chris and Bruce had started to nurture – rose to the challenge. By the Thursday before the Saturday grand opening they had 30 people helping. On Friday, that number doubled, and they were ready to open their doors the following day to welcome the Kalamazoo community to Gazelle Sports with open arms.
There were certainly bumps in the road. For a while, it was a monthly toss up on who they were going to pay. The utility company? The insurance company? Or the vendors so that there was product to sell? But all the while they were building relationships with their customers, creating value with exceptional customer care and product knowledge. Even in 1985, it was a tough retail landscape. A discount shoe store was operating not two blocks away. So from the beginning Chris and Bruce emphasized that what they were doing was so much more than a transactional business. They were there to foster and inspire a healthy lifestyle in the Kalamazoo community. And they discovered that people wanted to shop with them for that reason. They brought that same philosophy to Grand Rapids in 1989, and added a new partner Ken Sung. Ken had been around from the beginning, as a friend and fellow running enthusiast working at Playmakers in Lansing and later as a vendor rep for Hind, one of the brands Gazelle Sports carried from the start. Ken knew the guys at Gazelle Sports were on to something and wanted to bring it to Grand Rapids. In 1990, Gazelle Sports was going strong with a staff of 15 in two cities, but the accounting was still being done by Chris, a biomedical science major with a chemistry minor. Chris and Bruce were both good at knowing what they didn’t know. And Chris did not know accounting. So they brought Jean Sequite onto the team, guru of all things financial at Gazelle Sports.
And they kept on growing, adding stores and staff to help spread their movement mission across Michigan. Gazelle Sports added a store in downtown Holland in 1994, a retail website in 2008, and then expanded to the east side of the state in 2015, adding a store in Northville and shortly after that, downtown Birmingham. Bruce has since moved on from Gazelle Sports, but Chris, Ken and Jean remain, keeping the herd on the path of providing not only the best in running and soccer gear, but exceptional customer care, building lasting relationships and inspiring movement in others. They also never forgot their commitment to giving back to the community. In 2012, the Gazelle Sports Foundation was brought to life. Starting with the very first One One Run 32 years ago, all of the proceeds from any Gazelle Sports owned event have been given back to charity partners. The Gazelle Sports Foundation was founded as a way to focus these efforts in fostering movement and a healthy lifestyle in underserved parts of the communities we call home. The Foundation is dedicated to assisting Michigan in becoming one of the nation’s healthiest states through movement and encouraging active living. As we continue to grow and navigate the admittedly tough retail landscape, we look back on all that we’ve learned through the years. We are not new to battling discount and big box retailers. Nor are we the kind to back down from a challenge. We believe wholeheartedly in what we’re doing: we exist to inspire others to move. And we’re proud of that. We’re proud that every day we help break down barriers to movement. Whether that’s fitting customers for quality footwear designed to meet their unique needs, providing training programs that get people through their first or fiftieth 5k, getting folks geared up in the latest footwear, apparel and electronic technology, supporting an active lifestyle at an early age through Girls on the Run, or just being willing to have a conversation about what’s going on in your fitness journey. We believe movement can change your life. And we’re here to help make that happen!