With a reputation for being an active and adventurous city, it is no surprise that Madison is home to many outdoor gear shops. But perhaps none are as beloved as Fontana Sports Specialties. Fontana has been a favorite shopping stop for downtown pedestrians since its grand opening on the 100 block of State Street in 1972. Since then, this family-owned business has offered a large selection of high-quality gear and apparel for nearly every type of outdoor enthusiast.
“Our main focus is getting people out and enjoying the outdoors—whether that’s as simple as going for a walk or as advanced as climbing Mount Everest,” says Elizabeth Hutchinson, Operations Manager. Fontana sells a range of general outdoor apparel and footwear for men, women, and children, as well as gear and equipment for camping, climbing, fly fishing, paddling, skiing, snorkeling, snowboarding, snowshoeing, traveling, and other outdoor sports. They are evidently passionate about providing a variety of gear options with a variety of price tags that satisfy beginners and experts alike.
Fontana has evolved over its more than 60-year history. In 1949, the store opened as Fontana Army Navy in Fontana, Wisconsin by Clarence Hutchinson and sold military surplus. Twenty-three years later, his son John, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, opened the State Street location during the last years of the Vietnam War. With just $10,000 saved, John purchased excess inventory from his parents and set up shop in what is now the Tiki Shack on State Street. Fontana Army Navy was an immediate success, and two years later, moved to a larger storefront at 251 State Street. Two more years later, John expanded the store’s offerings with camping, climbing, scuba diving, and fly fishing equipment. Today, Fontana remains a family affair. As president, John owns and operates both stores with his wife Judith, who serves as vice president. His daughter Elizabeth, who grew up in the store (a crib was set up for her and her brother, Johnny, inside the store’s office), manages the day-to-day affairs.
With outdoor recreation on the rise, there is no better time to shop Fontana’s two stores—one on North Henry Street downtown and the other off Junction Road on the west side. According to the Outdoor Foundation, Americans took a record 12.4 billion outdoor excursions in 2012. There is a good chance that number increases this year as people get outside to enjoy the warm summer sun after an especially harsh winter. “My dad loves fly fishing, and is passionate about it in our stores,” says Elizabeth, noting southwest Wisconsin’s abundant trout fishing streams. Nearby hot spots like Devil’s Lake State Park are great for climbing and hiking, while other popular summer picks include biking, camping, and Nordic walking. No matter what outdoor activity it is, Fontana strives to stay on top of supplying their customers’ gear needs. “While all outdoors stores have their specialties, I think we’re able to respond quicker to the immediate needs of our area,” states Elizabeth. “Being locally owned, I can quickly make a call and reorder something if I need to.”
With a clear love for the outdoors, Fontana not only sells gear and apparel but also works with community partners in support of strengthening environmental protections. Strong advocates of the Ice Age Trail Alliance—which works to protect the 1,000-mile footpath tracing Ice Age formations in Wisconsin—they help host events throughout the year to raise money for the organization. They include the popular Headlamp Hustle, a 5K and 10K race held at night on the Ice Age Trail. “We want to work to protect and conserve the land, woods, and water we play in,” states Elizabeth. “Because we love Wisconsin, and we love this community.” In addition, they have partnered with the National Heritage Land Trust, Henry Vilas Zoo, and Dane County Humane Society to hold other special events, which give back to the organizations while getting people engaged in outdoor activities, like races.
While it is a relief to many that warmer weather has finally arrived, Fontana is passionate about hosting events throughout the year, especially in the winter. “We live in Wisconsin, so we need to enjoy winter! There is so much to do, and if you can find outdoor activities you like, it makes winter more enjoyable. Otherwise, it gets long,” says Elizabeth. To promote cold weather activities, they offer rentals—including cross-country skis and snowshoes—so customers can try out gear before they purchase. Fontana also offers free demos and classes throughout the year to encourage people to try new sports, like Nordic walking, disc golf, snowboarding and fly fishing. A full event calendar can be found on their website.
Fontana’s dedication to their customers and community is evident in the products they carry. “We find brands that stand behind their product,” says Elizabeth. “We look at how well it is made, how long it lasts, and where it ships from.” They strive to sell products made in the United States, reducing their environmental impact by shortening supply routes. They also prefer to stock Wisconsin brands, including Wigwam socks, right alongside other Midwest makers like Stormy Kromer, a manufacturer of wool hats made in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. These are in addition to popular brands like Patagonia, Marmot, The North Face, SmartWool, Mountain Hardwear, Merrell, Keen, and Osprey. It is important to note the two stores carry slightly different selections. If you are looking for fly fishing, downhill skiing or snowboarding equipment, it is best to make a visit to the larger west side location. Apparel and footwear are more popular at the downtown Fontana location.
Working one year ahead of schedule for their product buying calendar, Fontana’s staff of 35 to 50 employees is constantly working to keep on top of the latest in outdoor gear and apparel. Seasonality is huge in their industry, and they are always looking ahead to provide the best selection of products tailored to their customers’ needs. Affirms Elizabeth, “We hope our customers come into Fontana and see us an investment in their enjoyment of the outdoors and the area of Wisconsin that we are lucky to live in.”
Holly Whittlef is a freelance designer and writer who lives in Madison, and blogs about her love of good design and food at Hollis Anne.
Fontana Sports Specialities
216 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
231 Junction Road
Madison, WI 53717