Saturday, October 15, 2005

Occasional cultural notes: I visit Cabela's

As part of my occasional and ongoing series of reviews of retail store reviews (maybe to be filed under "Americana" if I could find a way to archive stuff on Blogger by anything except date) I went to look at our new and gigantic Cabela's roadside store Friday evening. It's a huge structure on I-35 in the little town of Buda (pronounced byooda) a few miles south of where I live--one of these vast roadside steel-building places, kinda like a factory outlet store, except that it's really a hunting and fishing equivalent of Walmart. Except it's not that either. It's a big box specialty store of a kind I would have found hard to imagine before I walked into it. For one thing, unlike Walmart, they have some _really_ expensive merchandise inside. More of that in a minute. They also have a lot of cheap shit made in China.

They call themselves an "outfitter's supply" store, which calls up visions of a wholesale packsaddle and mule shoe provisioner, but, of all the outdoor gear in the place, profuse in quantity and kaleidoscopic in kind, I must say, I did not see a single saddle for a mule or any farriers' stock anywhere in the place, though given the size of the store I could have overlooked them. The place is as big as the nearest Walmart Superstore 10 miles up the road in Austin, maybe bigger.

It plays to the fantasies of hunters and fishermen, and would-be hunters and fishermen, and I think the basic, unifying-theme fantasy of this strange place is a vision of Teddy Roosevelt's America. They have set up big expedition tents inside the place, like you would find in a camp of northwoods hunters in 1900, except that the tents, that would hold 15 or 20 fold-up cots, aren't canvas or made in America. Nothing much in the way of Sierra Club ethic pack it in pack it out ultralight carry-it-yourself tentstock, here.

The ur-image would be that of robust jolly hunters sitting back in camp in very comfy and sturdy camp chairs, as befits a modern hunter's girth, drinking beer and exchanging untruths and eating venison cooked on a big campfire. The Teddy Roosevelt vision has been somewhat militarized, I am sad to say--the place has a good quarter acre of military-looking camouflage clothing.

At one time, as recently as a few years ago, hunters sensibly wore day-glow orange to the hunt, so as not to be mistaken for trophy bucks and shot, but apparently hunters now must either have bought into a face-blackened commando self-image, or they have discovered that deer can see orange, or both. Unfortunate, in any case, if only for the possible toll of trophy sized deer-hunters. There is still a small section of traffic-cone-orange vests and hats, for traditionalists or those who place more stock in saving their lives than in bringing home venison, but the decor of the store--not just the clothing section, either--is camo.

You can even get camo face-masks, to really fool the cervids into thinking you are a tree--the complete outfit is hat, face mask, coat, vest, shirt, pants, and boots, all in southern-command airborne-ranger jungle-camo, and you can get it all here, and more. One stop shopping, also, maybe, for paramilitary and drug-cartel outfitters on their way south.

There is well over a quarter acre of guns and gun supplies--there is even a little store-within-a-store, called a gun "library," where collectable guns are bought and sold. I personally stopped and for several minutes admired, the workmanship and ornamentation of a Purdey shotgun, an over and under 12 gauge fowling piece with a price tag of $139,999.

Impressive. The price, I mean. I think this is part of the museum-exhibit aspect of the store, intended to sell whatever self-concept it is that impels people to rush out of the "library" and buy $600 shotguns they can't afford any more than the Purdey, but which will not max out their Visa card. (Someone who actually tried to buy the Purdey would probably be in danger of arrest, suspected of being either a drug kingpin or an indictable money-launderingTexas politician. Alarms would go off in Ronnie Earle's office.)

There are a good many 5 to 10 thousand dollar shotguns also. And lots of collectable revolvers and pistols. As I was looking at the shotguns, some guy came in to sell his antique Colt SAA Peacemaker. Those run $1500 to $6000 depending on vintage and condition.

The store had two museum exhibit areas, one of predators, big cats, stuffed, in naturalistic Museum of Natural History settings, and another of large herbivores, mostly horned arteriodactyls, also deceased and stuffed, in Northwoods autumn maple-leaf diorama settings; the animals in taxidermic pseudo-animation, looking more robust than many of the customers, some of whom were cruising around slowly in wheelchair shopping carts, hunting, fishing, and camping goods piled high in the basket in front.

Primed by the store's ambience, the customers fan out into the actual sales sections of the store. I mentioned the huge area of guns. The gun section has walls of long guns, cabinets of handguns, and many aisles of gun paraphernalia--handloading tools, cleaning equipment, carrying cases, telescopic sights, spotting scopes, targets--you name it. They have a little island of binoculars, to see trophy mountain sheep on distant mountainsides, including top of the line optics any birdwatcher would be happy to have--Swarovskis and Leicas--down to shrink-wrapped $39.95 more-or-less ornamental field glasses for hunters to wear around their neck with their camo gear, part of the costume.

On the other side of the store, and equal to the guns in acreage, is the fishing section. I didn't go over there, but I could see that it had lots of fishing poles, no doubt some of them fancy and expensive. I'd guess some fly-fishing gear was on display, if not sold much--Texas is not trout-stream central. But a guy can buy his fly rod and tackle-box of pre-tied flies and dream of his big week in Montana, if he still hasn't reached his credit card limit.

Between the camo clothing and the fishing poles there is a relatively inconspicuous section of normal jackets, shirts, hats, and other clothes--by normal, I mean not camo. I guess they can't fight Walmart in selling blue men's shirts or pink women's parkas.

To move on: there was a section of canoes, kayaks, and boating equipment. Plus the parking lot outside has a lot of kayaks and canoes, which are now found in the colors formerly popular in hunting gear, various shades of shocking orange. Gets people into the store and into a good mood, I guess.

Back inside the store, to the west of the guns is a bowhunting section, with hundreds of high-tech composite block-and-tackle carbon-fiber titanium multiple-pulley hand catapults for sale that are bows in the sense that genetically engineered soybeans with fish dna are members of the plant kingdom. If you buy a bow, they have an archery range to try it out. But, if I read the sign correctly, only if you buy. (Upstairs, though, there is a laserbeam marksmanship gallery to try out your aim with a fake gun, with a carnival-barker-voiced talking deer's head over the door to draw you in, and entry is free, no gun purchase required. Also, no bullets fired. The guns have a recorded bang.) There was one small rack of real, and I must say very esthetically pleasing wooden bows, beautifully made. I was afraid to look at the price tags.

On to a section of knives and knife-sharpening equipage. I think I remember a $300 device for keeping your kitchen and or hunting knives razor-honed to finger-amputation sharpness. My knives, needless to say, are dull.

Camping equipment is upstairs. As mentioned, they don't have much truck at Cabela's with lightweight backpacker equipment. This is heavyweight stuff. Indeed, this is a heavyweight store. My feeling is that you drive to your campsite in the same Hummer you drive to the story to buy your tent, ideally; tents you can snap extra rooms onto like space station modules, to sleep any number of extra drunk hunters in. Tents that many getting-drunk hunters can gather round the fire in front of. Tents that Theodore Roosevelt himself would recognize as a tent, except for the space-station materials used. But the look is the same.

They have a big cafeteria upstairs. It was closed for the evening, but dollars to donuts they do not sell veggie-burgers.

They have very friendly employees. The older ones are mostly pot-bellied men with closely cropped hair, and then there is a cohort of younger employees, fresh-faced young men with closely cropped hair, and attractive young women, who look like the older employees must have once looked--fit, outdoorsy, and active.

My going-away impression was one of sensory overload and what the hell are these people thinking. Except for the high-end Leica binocs I can't afford, or maybe an orange impact-resistant kayak, there was nothing there I could see myself owning. I guess that's what liberalism does to you. The optics were the only thing I know anything about, really, and honestly I would not buy binoculars here, even if I could afford $1,900 for the Leicas when I could buy them from a web retailer significantly cheaper.

So they don't cut into Walmart's customer base. Thus I am led to wonder: where the hell do the customers of this humongo "outfitters' supply" store come from? I think it may be an actual travel destination. Or at least for some I-35 travelers, it could be a looked-forward-to place to stop for a few hours. I-35, or its international extension, runs from Mexico City to Minnesota. You go out in the parking lot, and the ground shakes with the traffic 200 yards away. Giant trucks are responsible for most of the shaking, but there are lots of cars amid the truck convoys. Potentially, I-35 is a huge market.

Not coincidentally, in my opinion, the state shut down the only big rest stop that I know of in the 50 miles on either side of this store, which was a few miles from here, at the very time this store was built.

Weary travelers must stop somewhere.

Now I apologize to the management of Cabela's or any Republicans who might accidentally find this blog, for a tone in this post that might be mistaken for irreverence towards commerce.

For I am truly and honestly interested in both the cultural and political significance of this store. Up till now I have talked about what we might call cultural matters. But--and this is no laughing matter--the taxpayers of Hays County and the state of Texas are both payng what is in all but name a bribe to the ownership of Cabela's, in exchange for Cabela's putting their emporium here rather than somewhere else on I-35, or I-10, or I-Somewhere Else.

Tax subsidies, tax breaks and incentives paid to Cabela's added up to more than $60 million. At least that's what we know about. Plus Cabela's sued Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to try to keep newspapers from obtaining documentation of possible further payments.

The village of Buda and Hays County are contributing $40 million of the $60 million, and the state has thrown in $20 million for road improvements (including better exit ramps, naturally), and a slush fund called the governor's Texas Enterprise Fund will kick in several hundred thousand dollars.

Buda has turned its municipal water tower into an advertisement for the store and reportedly is putting up billboards as well. I have read that Texas Parks and Wildlife is stocking Guadalupe bass for the store's 60,000-gallon aquarium.

I didn't see the aquarium. But I could have overlooked it--it's a big place.
Cabela-sized tent, but of another era, equipped with one possible Cabela customer self-image

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