Archery icon bows out

Eagle's Wing store cites slide in interest

By Bob Hodge

LENOIR CITY - Own a retail store and you're going to spend a lot of time putting price tags on stuff, hanging sale signs and, hopefully, preparing to be stampeded by customers.

John and Teresa Stang spend the better part of last week tagging, hanging and preparing. When they opened Eagle's Wings Archery for business Thursday morning the customers were there.

For the Stangs it wasn't a good day.

After 13 years "The best little archery pro shop by a dam site" is closing it's doors. The sale the Stangs have spent their time getting ready for is a going-out-of-business sale that continues until everything in the store is sold.

"We have been taking money out of our retirement in hopes the industry would bounce back," John Stang said. "We've been cutting back for a long time.

"We went from two full-time employees and three part-time, plus Teresa and myself, to one full-time. The problem was we could handle all the business ourselves."

The Stang's came to Lenoir City from Michigan in 1995 after researching where would be the best place in the U.S. to open an archery pro shop. They decided East Tennessee looked good, then picked the site on Highway 321 and went into business.

Their research had been dead on target.

For eight years Eagle's Wings thrived. Their research couldn't tell them the rocky road the archery industry was going to face.

It wasn't only a decline in hunting that hurt, but a decline in all forms of archery.

"We didn't start feeling it until 2003," John Stang said. "The previous year everybody else was crying the blues about sales going down, but we were fine."

Factor in business going to the big box stores that popped up in the area and archers who were finding what they needed on the internet, and "the boots on the ground" as Stang called his customers weren't coming through the door.

At one time Eagle's Wings was rated one of the top 50 archery pro shops in the country with annual sales of more than $525,000. Last year sales dipped to $330,000.

"If you put it all on a graph the arrow would be going down at a 30 percent angle," Stang said. "We've been going down seven percent a year, on average."

Since 2003, indoor leagues at Eagle's wings fell by 54 percent. Tournaments and leagues for 3-D shooting fell by 75 percent. Participation in Eagle's Wings annual Bowhunter Skill Shoot fell by 43 percent. Bow fishing tournaments quit being a big draw.

In the past five years Stang said six archery clubs within a 60-mile radius of Eagle's Wings have folded. The Archery Shooters Association saw participation in its biggest event decline by 13 percent.

In a letter sent out to longtime customers the Stangs described the situation as a "perfect storm."

Eagle's Wings stayed open because the Stangs could cut some expenses. Others - mortgage on the building, utilities to keep 9,000 square feet heated and cooled, insurance costs, etc. - either stayed constant or kept going up as business went down.

But . . .

"If we had to do it all over again, we'd do the same stupid things," Stang said. "When we got into this we said we're going to do this right or we're going to go bankrupt. But we're leaving with all of our bills paid. We don't owe anybody a dime."

Much like when the Knoxville fly fishing shop "The Creel" went out of business this year, Eagle's Wings was more than a store to many of its customers.

At The Creel it was a row of chairs by the front window that was the social-center of the business. At Eagle's Wings it was a heavy wooden table surrounded by bar stools.

Stang recalls a teenager who was a crystal meth addict who drifted into the shop one day looking for something to help occupy his time as he went through rehab. In short order he was trying to find extra time to shoot a bow instead of trying to find his next fix.

"This table has seen more activity with family related issues that had nothing to do with archery . . . " Stang said. "We've had kids that came in here and started shooting and watched them go from elementary school to college."

Although the industry had been in decline for a half-decade the Stangs thought they could ride out the storm, perfect or not.

Seventy-five percent of the store's annual business has been in July, August and September as hunters gear up for bow season. When things didn't improve in July and the first half of August, the Stangs knew they had to make a decision.

"Think going through a divorce, think losing a loved one, it's been like that," Teresa Stang said.

Not only is the store's archery inventory for sale, but light fixtures, mounted deer and sheep, tables, file cabinets and tool boxes are being sold as well.

Teresa Stang, formerly a human resources manager for TRW, said she's going to look for a job. John Stang, who turns 65 in December, said he's contemplating retirement and "trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up."

Things might have been different if Eagle's Wings had not been an archery-only store and catered to other outdoor sports. That was never a part of the plan.

"We wanted to do one thing well and not do several things half-ass," Stang said. "You can be a jack-of-all trades and a master of none. It was our choice to be a master of archery."