By LAURA JOHNSON
PIEDMONT, Ala. —
On a recent weekday morning John Melton traveled from his home on the edge of Lay Lake, about 40 miles south of Birmingham, to take a look at one of the boats at Terrapin Outdoor Center in Piedmont.
Melton said made the extended morning trip to look at one of the shop’s touring kayaks, a hard-to-find boat. He left the city with a yellow-and-red kayak strapped to his Acura SUV.
Melton isn’t the only person traveling to the remote outdoors center to buy a paddle boat. Mike Warren, owner of Terrapin Outdoor Center, said people from three states, including Alabama, drive to his shop to buy boats.
“Everybody tells me it’s the largest selection of boats they’ve ever seen in one place,” Warren said. “People can actually set their eyes and hands on the boat and make a decision right here on the spot.”
Warren’s store is one of only a few independent paddle boat dealers in Alabama. Despite his remote location, Warren says he does more paddle boat business than the other outfitters in the state.
It’s an assertion that other store owners in Alabama are willing to affirm, and reluctant to challenge.
Fairhope Boat Co. in south Alabama has been in the small-boat sales business for about three decades. The store sells 15 brands of paddle boats, and keeps 80 models of boats on-hand, three to four of each model, said Harriet Ingraham, a manager at the store.
Fairhope Boat is 347 miles from Terrapin Outdoor, but Ingraham is familiar with the business.
“I talk to different sales reps who service him and service me. I just know they do really good business,” Ingraham said. “They probably sell more numbers of boats than we do.”
On an average fall or winter day, Warren said he sells about two boats. During the summer months, it’s three times that. The average boat sells for about $600, Warren said. Used ones can sell for as little as $200, while new boats at the center go for as much as $1,600.
“If they average two boats a day, that’s pretty good,” said Lonnie Carden, owner of Coosa Outdoor Center in Wetumpka. “I’m happy to sell two boats in the summertime.”
Carden said he’s been renting and selling paddle boats in Alabama for about four decades. He said he keeps between 50 and 60 boats on hand to sell.
“I sell a lot of boats, but I could probably sell more if it wasn’t for Terrapin Creek,” Carden said. “I think they’re pretty heavy discounters.”
At Terrapin Outdoor Center between 300 and 500 paddle boats are on hand for customers to view. They’re stacked inside a small store and an adjoined shed.
Sales aren’t the only place where Warren finds success. Like Coosa Outdoor and about three dozen other outfitters in Alabama, Warren also rents boats. The kayaks rent for $25.
He has a rental fleet of 200 kayaks at his creek-side shop and rents them a total of 7,500 times between March and September, which, for Warren, is the busy season. Business has been so good in recent years that on some Saturday, Warren has more customers than he does boats to rent.
Including rentals and sales, revenue has “edged up” near $1 million for the past three years at Terrapin Outdoor Center, Warren said.
“I’m really blessed to find myself in the situation I’m in,” Warren said. “I love the business and I love the people.”
When Warren, his wife Catherine, and his parents moved in 1995 to Terrapin Creek to be nearer the water, the land and the people there, the family never imagined having a business at the creek. It started when they began renting about six canoes shortly after moving to the creek bank.
“Within one year we realized it might be a good idea to sell them too,” Mike Warren said.
The Warrens primarily rented and sold canoes until the late 1990s, when kayaks became more popular.
“It seemed like the customers enjoyed having a boat of their own,” Mike Warren said. “Back in ’95, kayaks were not as popular as the canoes and the companies didn’t have the range of kayaks that they have today.”
Though the family didn’t intended to start a paddle boat business at the creek, they weren’t new to the idea of selling canoes. The elder Warren, Bobby, now deceased, had been selling boats and other outdoor sporting goods since the 1960s. Bobby Warren owned Outdoor Supply, which sold an array of sporting goods in Gadsden, and was best known for his store, Bob’s Cycle Sales, a Honda motorcycle shop in Alabama City, Mike Warren said.
Boats, though, were always part of Bobby Warren’s business.
“Even if he was selling motorcycles in a shop, he’d be selling canoes in the back room,” Mike Warren said.
That began in 1969, when Bobby started dealing in aluminum canoes. Initially canoeing was an outgrowth of his desire to fish, but it became more than that for the elder Warren.
“It just carried over into a business.” Mike Warren said.
Mike Warren has said he can’t quite decide why his business has been such a success. His store is off the beaten path in Cherokee County, at the end of a long gravel road off of a roughly-paved road that turns off of Alabama 9 north of Piedmont. It’s on a 10-acre slice of land that backs up to Terrapin Creek, where he lets renters plop his boats in the water and paddle away to until they reach the nearest landing.
He has never advertised. His rudimentary website is the store’s portal to the outside world.
And at a time when many outfitters are selling popular outdoor clothing brands and other fashionable gear, he sticks to the basics. He sells paddle boats, canoes, kayaks and paddle boards, and their accessories - paddles, dry boxes and life jackets.
Mike Warren uses a cash box and a calculator, instead of a cash register. His receipts are hand-written on carbon paper and he uses simple black, touch-tone phone with a spiral cord.
Warren said he wants to keep his business, “just like it is.”