From outside, except for the rustic sign on the lawn, 733 River Road in Fair Haven still looks like the cottage-style house it was before it became a dentist’s office 25 years ago.
Step through the Dutch front door, though, and you’re transported to retail space that could be on the side of a mountain in Wyoming or Vermont, with raw wood floors and ceiling joists summoning a deeply rustic vibe inside the vinyl-sided structure.
The address is now home to Canyon Pass Provisions, a week-old clothing shop created by a couple who abandoned the 9-to-5 life in order to make a new life for themselves and their two kids — without leaving the town they love, they say.
The shop, which carries Salomon footwear, Kühl clothing and other activewear brands, is owned and run by Derek DeBree, 47, and his wife, Genevieve DeBree, 49. Both worked for a software company Derek founded 18 years ago with his brother, Dwight, to whom he recently sold his share.
With one child in college and the other in his senior year at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional, the soon-to-be-empty-nesters pondered their future earlier this year and concluded they were game for big changes.
“We decided wanted to do something in Fair Haven and hyperlocal,” said Derek, “and this is what we’ve done.”
DeBree said he and his wife “wanted to be in a space where we knew we had great products for people who live active lifestyles,” he said.
“If we’re going to sell something, we want to sell something that encourages people to be outdoors and be active,” he said, noting that the idea began to take hold about eight years ago, when their friend, Karen Hellman, opened a similar Fair Haven business called Gear Loft, which has since closed.
“I thought, she’s working at the local level, selling a product that is fantastic and encourages people to be active and outdoors,” said Derek.
Their dream business also had to be truly local, said Derek, who grew up in town and serves on the volunteer fire squad, where he was chief, and the first-aid squad. He and Genevieve looked at properties in Red Bank and elsewhere, but concluded that prevailing rents would jeopardize the viability of a store. Besides, his business would have to have grass out front; that was non-negotiable, he said.
The River Road property, which has also seen duty as a dress shop and a real estate office, met their needs.
“First and foremost,” the property is a real estate investment, said DeBree. While he and his wife felt a strong pull to the retailing business, he was “leery” it could make if it was subject to the rent demands of a landlord.
“I like to build equity,” said DeBree. “We wanted to create something really special, and if we were going invest all that time, and money, in creating something special, we wanted to be building equity for ourselves, not for somebody else.”
So, like Kathleen Conlon, a rookie retailer who recently opened Welcome Home in a onetime gas station on East Front Street in Red Bank, the DeBrees went all-in and bought the house.
It helps that the property, which cost the couple $520,000, has a house out back with a tenant, and a garage that DeBree now uses as a workshop, he said.
Indulging his hands-on side, DeBree spent five months readying the 1,400-square-foot space. He tore out plaster and insulation, reusing lath to form an enclosure on the underside of a staircase and repurposing whatever else he could. He built the display racks and checkout counter, and even took a welding class to enable him to create some steel tables.
“Obviously, it’s a quality-of-life play for us,” said DeBree. “We love the town, love small business, we love entrepreneurs. We’re wrapping up everything we love in one place.”
“We’re also promoting outdoor activity,” said Genevieve. She and her husband are skiers, runners, hikers, Frisbee-golfers — “really anything outdoors, we love it,” she said.
Attending industry trade shows and visiting top retailers up and down the East Coast, they lined up relationships with about 20 manufacturers, said Genevieve, who will be the main face of the business while Derek completes other projects.
Competition? Sure, there’s plenty, both in the bricks-and-mortar world and online, they acknowledge. But the DeBrees aren’t carrying higher-risk hard goods such as skis and camping gear, and instead, sticking to lifestyle clothing, for now at least.
Still, they have no illusions, and recognize that retailing of any kind is a “tough” business, Derek said. “But we’re hoping this is the next 15 to 20 years of our life right here in this spot. And if we can’t do it, it’s not meant to be done, because we don’t shy from hard work, we’re smart enough to run a business like this, and we understand the demographics.”
They’ve also, he said, built a business that isn’t just close to home: it’s where he and his family are embedded. When 4,000 pounds of wood for flooring arrived without prior notice, DeBree put out a call to his fire department friends, and in short order had five of them to help unload the truck.
“That” — the involvement of his wife, kids and neighbors — “has been the best part of it,” he said.