Adapting to the changing tides of business-Little Forks Outfitters

Robert “Bo” Brines has been watching businesses since he was a kid in the ‘60s.

“Main Street used to be a main hub,” says Brines. “… Dow Chemical would get paid on Thursday nights and you could hardly walk up and down Main Street.” A decade later, Brines got his start working for his father’s business, Bob Brines Office Supply. Then the mall came to town.

“Downtown lost Sears, JC Penney — the anchors down here. All of a sudden, there were a bunch of empty storefronts,” he says.
Robert “Bo” Brines opened Little Forks Outfitters in 1995.
The Downtown Development Authority was newly formed around that time. While the DDA began ramping up efforts to help downtown flourish, Brines hooked a business idea of his own.

“I had been going out west backpacking and trout fishing with friends of mine, hanging out in the Yellowstone area a lot. I saw shops like this,” he says, motioning to his store. “And I realized there was nothing that existed like this back here.” 

Brines noticed other signs that supported his business idea. Fly fishing was seeing a boon in popularity from the film, “A River Runs Through It,” leading Orvis, an outdoors retail brand specializing in fly fishing, to look for dealers to partner with.

“They sold the mailer catalogs, so they had a pretty good idea of what markets would support it,” says Brines. “They thought that the Midland, Saginaw, Bay area would support a dealer pretty well. … Looking around the Tri-Cities, downtown Midland was the only place that aspired to that upscale niche.”
Little Forks Outfitters is located in downtown Midland at 143 E. Main Street.
As Carl Gerstacker built up the DDA, they sought out specialty stores such as an Orvis dealer. “He said it by name, and I took that as an omen,” says Brines.

In 1995, Brines opened Little Forks Outfitters at 143 E. Main Street. He’s owned the building for almost 20 years — a decision he’s happy with. “I bought it from a guy who was a second-generation shoe store owner. I really embraced the history of downtown.”

Even now, downtown continues to transform. In 2018, downtown traffic lights were replaced with four-way stop signs to make walking safer. “Downtown Midland has a vision of being a pedestrian-friendly, community gathering space. That’s really the model they’ve been going for, and that’s been pretty consistent” says Brines. 

He believes the pedestrian plazas have been a step in the right direction, too. “People come down here just to hang out. They’ll come not only in the evenings when there’s stuff going on, but any time of time you can walk out and there are people. Fifteen to twenty years ago, that wasn’t always the case.”

Brines has been involved in the DDA for about 20 years. Because the city manager appoints board members, there has to be a certain level of representation. Brines appreciates the insight from financial professionals, downtown residents, property owners, and business owners. 

Brines has been involved in the DDA for about 20 years. He’s been on the board of the Michigan Retailers Association since 2012.
“They make sure the different voices downtown can be heard,” he says. … There are other parts of the whole downtown entrepreneurial experience that I think can be really fruitful. There’s been a lot of really good investment made.”

While Brines believes downtown Midland has a good mix of businesses, he also sees gaps in what a downtown should have: a bakery, bookstore, family breakfast spot, and entertainment options such as a theater or a nightclub. 
Little Forks has a range of gear for the outdoor enthusiast, including big-name brands such as Patagonia, Yeti and Orvis.
“Bringing in the right people to make that happen is important though,” says Brines. “I’ve spent thirty years building this thing, and that’s what it takes. You can’t just have a half-formed idea and not be fully committed to it.”

In business, there are always new challenges. For local brick-and-mortar businesses, online shopping is one of them. “The expectation is that people want to be able to look at my inventory when they want, and so a lot of people are making their decisions and figuring out what they need before they even come in,” says Brines. “… If you’re not transparent and available on the web, you’re just not in the game.”

Brines has been working to get their inventory visible online. While they’ve made marked progress in recent years, cataloging all the images, descriptions, and inventory is no small task. “To get to that next level, that behind-the-scenes data management is pretty intense.”

Despite the challenges, Little Forks continues to be a staple in the community, even after 28 years. Brines attributes his success to his passion for the outdoors and his commitment to learning.
Because of Brines’ fly fishing passion, Little Forks boasts an impressive selection of fishing goods.
“I’ve really been a student not only of the sports that we support, but I also try to pay attention and learn all I can about being a good business person and a good member of the community,” says Brines. “I talk to a lot of people that are comfortable doing business with us because they know that I’ve really tried to play a part in helping to make the community a better place.”

He also serves as a board member of the Michigan Retailers Association, of which he was chair from 2020-2022. Brines says he has learned a lot from his fellow board members, “We have the CFO of Meijer, the general council from Kroger, and regional vice presidents from Target. There are also a lot of family-owned businesses. It’s been a really interesting ward to interact with.”

The Michigan Retailers Association offers members credit card processing, insurance, legislative advocacy, and more. “It’s a class act. The staff is phenomenal. … I’m proud to be associated with them.”  

”When the shop is busy and things are humming along and people are happy and smiling, there’s really no better feeling,” says Brines.
Brines has considered expanding his business, but he’s also content with how business is running. He’s excited to see more businesses move downtown.

“I think the best is yet to come for downtown,” says Brines. “I think Midland is a great community to be in business. We’ve got a strong economic engine and a lot of good jobs and good, strong, family connections.”

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Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.