For the first half of the co-op's life, the mail-order portion of the business was run out of the Anderson household, even after REI became the Seattle post office's largest customer. Anderson was always tinkering, trying to find or make just the right product. For example, he bought reams of cotton material from a fabric wholesaler, and Mary sewed it into tents, which Lloyd then sprayed with a clear lacquer to make them waterproof.
In the mid-1950s, the co-op hired Jim Whittaker as store sales manager. He is a lanky, storytelling mountaineer who pushed REI into the age of the bottom line. In 1963—when Whittaker took an REI Cruiser backpack to the top of the world as he became the first American to climb Mount Everest—the co-op was growing apace. About that time a representative of General Mills showed up and offered an impressive amount to buy REI. Anderson, still president, turned him down without a second thought: "I said, 'It's not for sale. You can't buy a co-op."
It was Whittaker (card No. 647 and the co-op's president from 1971 to 1979) who opened up the first store outside Seattle, in 1975, and expanded the inventory far beyond climbing and camping gear. He felt that REI had to grow every year in order to keep prices down. "Early on, I would feel good if I managed to sell a guy a bag of nuts while talking about a certain mountain," Whittaker says. "But we couldn't stop the growth, so we just rode with it. I used to tell Lloyd we would become the Sears Roebuck of the outdoors."
Wally Smith, REI's current president, hopes eventually to open a co-op outlet in every major North American city. The outdoor boom, says Smith, has not leveled off but has changed, as backpacking baby boomers introduce their toddlers to the outdoors. Does this mean REI is going soft? Smith, who was hired by Lloyd Anderson as a mailroom clerk and has worked at REI ever since, says an emphatic no. The members keep checking the "more active" box in co-op surveys inquiring into changes in their life-styles and want more products that push them instead of pamper them.