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Saving SavOn: Ogden's sporting goods store hangs on as lone local sports shop

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OGDEN — If you grew up playing sports in Northern Utah, chances are nearly 100% that you used equipment from, wore uniforms supplied by or even played for a team directly sponsored by SavOn Sporting Goods.

For nearly 60 years, the family-owned business has become intertwined with the sports community in Weber County and beyond. But like many such companies, it's been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic that closed down large swaths of normal life beginning in March.

Regulations didn't require SavOn to close but, by late April, co-owner and general manager Justin Nakaishi was working the store by himself.

Business was crawling. He had to furlough everyone else who was working there, including Mike Rubin, whose father started the business in the early 1960s. Feeling desperate, Nakaishi pulled out his phone, composed a Facebook message and sent it into the ether late on the night of April 29, not knowing what the next day might bring or for how much longer SavOn could stay open.

As the calendar has turned over to June, things are OK. For now.

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Brogan Poll, left, works the register at SavOn Sporting Goods while Angie Williams purchases baseball equipment for her son, Mason Williams, a sophomore Bonneville High pitcher, on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

— OGDEN ROOTS —

In a vacant store on Washington Boulevard in downtown Ogden, Herman Rubin moved in to operate a large department store around 1963, his son, Mike Rubin, recalls. Herman leased out space for menswear, hardware, Western wear, automotive supplies, jewelry and more. But he kept a big portion of the building for himself and his own venture: sporting goods.

Herman and his sons — Marc and Mike — helped the store thrive until a familiar tale unfolded. The city took the property through eminent domain in 1976 to build the Ogden City Mall. Herman closed out much of his sporting goods merchandise and the department store was razed. 

About two years later, Marc reopened the sporting goods business from his garage. Mike said he recently found a stash of old ledgers that showed 1978 sales out of that garage totaled $103,000, which he credited to continued strong connections with suppliers.

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Baseball gloves hang on the wall at SavOn Sporting Goods on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

The success, and those connections, meant it wasn't long before SavOn Sporting Goods moved into a small South Ogden space on the corner of 39th Street and Washington Boulevard. Not long after that move in 1979, Herman died at the age of 61. Herman's wife, Lillian, was the store's bookkeeper until she passed in 1997.

After nearly 20 years, SavOn moved to a slightly bigger space at the corner of 300 West and Riverdale Road in 1997. It was in that space that Nakaishi began working for SavOn.

After a short bout with an aggressive cancer at age 54, Marc "was called up to the Big League by the Heavenly Manager" in 2003, his obituary reads.

Mike took over the business until 2009 when Nakaishi's family — he, his father Jeff and his brother Jason — bought SavOn and moved it to its current location, tucked just inside Ogden City limits at 2736 S. 1900 West.

Nakaishi pitched at Washington State, competing against the likes of Barry Zito and Chase Utley, before moving on to coaching. His family and the Rubins have been friends for as long as he can remember, which is why, before he worked at the store, he remembers helping the Rubins move the store from South Ogden to Riverdale Road.

"It was all relationships. Marc took care of the community, he took care of people, so we just stayed loyal to those guys," Nakaishi said. "We try to replicate that."

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Store owner Justin Nakaishi poses for a portrait outside SavOn Sporting Goods on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

Nakaishi bought his baseball supplies and more at SavOn when he was a kid. Jason was a minor league umpire for a time and Jeff remains involved in coaching. Justin Nakaishi — who has been an assistant baseball coach at Roy and Weber high schools, among other coaching stints — was already working at SavOn in 2009, so he slid into the role of store manager while his brother and father continued working in their construction business.

"What’s better than being able to talk shop with coaches, athletes and kids all day?" Nakaishi said. "I used to coach, so I replaced the coaching side with SavOn. I still get to see all the kids, see everyone grow up and keep in touch with the people we’ve built relationships with over time."

— THE DESPERATE POST —

"From the bottom of my heart I appreciate every relationship I have encountered during my time with SavOn," Nakaishi wrote to the SavOn Sports Facebook page on April 29. "It is harder than I have ever expected to come to all of you asking for help. But during these times I have struggled to keep our doors open. I am asking you as family, friend, or competitor, anything you can do to help keep our doors open would go so far. I have tried to help our community as much as I could at all times, and I hate asking for help. But with spring sports being cancelled, I am struggling to keep our doors open. Whether it is my store or any local shop, please shop local and help to keep our small businesses going strong!"

When Tyler Barfuss saw Nakaishi's post, it tugged on his heart maybe a little more than he expected.

Barfuss is a recreation supervisor at Layton City. He's a former head baseball coach at Roy High, currently referees high school basketball and is an umpire for college and high school softball. He remembers going into SavOn at 10 years old with his late father to buy his first baseball glove, cleats and a bat. His dad even bought him his own set of catcher's gear. He played in Washington Terrace and Roy city leagues and recalls competing against teams sponsored by SavOn.

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Footballs hang on the wall at SavOn Sporting Goods on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

He now makes purchases to equip Layton City's recreation programs. Barfuss said that, within the city's bid and purchasing guidelines, a lot of his business goes to SavOn — football helmets and pads, shirts and hats, basketballs, baseballs, bats, catcher's gear and scorebooks — because it remains competitive price-wise while offering local service.

Barfuss said he also buys his personal officiating gear there.

"You can walk in there and can buy a recreational quality glove for your 5-year-old starting in tee ball up to, I’ve bought a $400 catcher’s glove that I used personally, and anything in between," Barfuss said.

Acknowledging Scoreboard Sports in Bountiful, which specializes in soccer sales, Nakaishi posits that SavOn is the only nonchain, full-service sporting goods store north of Salt Lake City. Old anchors like Academy Sports in Layton have long been bought out by national chains, who shut down retail stores and made the acquisitions just to take over sales teams.

Before college sports became big business, SavOn supplied Weber State with loads of equipment — especially in women's and Olympic sports — while buying sponsorships and season tickets. Barfuss recalls wearing SavOn jackets when playing in high school baseball All-Star games.

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A customer helps his son try on soccer gear at SavOn Sporting Goods on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

Because of those things, he doesn't like to think about the possibility of SavOn not surviving.

"It would leave a hole because of what they do for the community. Not every parent knows that they need a glove or cleats for their child in advance of their first practice. It’s the first day of practice and my kid doesn’t have a glove, and my options are SavOn or insert your national retailer here," Barfuss said. "They’re Ogden’s sporting goods store. They deserve the community’s support.

"They’ve earned the community’s support for the last several decades and they deserve our support now, in my opinion. You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody over 30 who didn’t play in a little league, a high school program, attend a Weber State sporting event, that wasn’t directly supported by SavOn."

— THE REBOUND —

Nakaishi showed up to SavOn on April 30, the day after his Facebook post, before business hours and was confused to find a friend waiting for him.

"He took off work. He said, ‘Have you seen what Facebook has done? There’s no way you can survive by yourself today,'" Nakaishi remembers.

The post, which has nearly 600 shares — a whopping number considering Facebook's algorithm and SavOn's page following of just over 1,900 likes — had taken off.

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Shoes hang on the wall at SavOn Sporting Goods on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

For the rest of the week, people from the community made SavOn hectic, coming "out of the woodwork to buy anything to help out. It was unreal what people did. The community has been fantastic," Nakaishi said.

And seemingly by the same miracle, a wash of funds came to Nakaishi the same day. His application for the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program — part of a massive effort by the federal government to lift the economy due to the pandemic's dramatically negative effects — had been approved.

His small staff returned to work the next week, including Mike Rubin.

"I’m working for a great family," Rubin said.

— A WALL OF LIZARD SKINS —

Those loyal to SavOn Sporting Goods say there's nothing to match the store's combination of knowledge and inventory.

Take the wall of Lizard Skins, for example. It's a rack of bat grips that runs 20 columns wide and six rows deep. 

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Kole Story, a junior infielder at Bonneville High, browses in SavOn Sporting Goods on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

"I like to change up my bat grips a lot, so they always have the right selection for me," said Kole Story, a middle infielder for Bonneville High School's baseball team, who wandered the store on an early June afternoon. "None of the stuff is bad quality. Even if you’re a beginner, you have high-quality beginner gloves. Everything is high quality here."

Surveying the store, the Nakaishi family's background in baseball and softball is clear. There's likely no bat or glove a serious player would want that SavOn wouldn't have, or couldn't get quickly.

Story said he's been impressed by how SavOn keeps up with inventory trends and needs by the minute, whether it's for city leagues, youth travel ball or high school sports. He described how a certain bat was the hottest on the market this year but, when he went to look at it on SavOn's racks, it wasn't there.

The bat had failed to meet regulations and had been banned for competition use so SavOn, he said, had removed it immediately.

Much more is crammed into the store: cleats and balls for any sport, protective gear, lacrosse sticks and pads, braces and armbands and sweatbands, wrestling shoes and headgear, performance socks (some with local high school logos on them), scorebooks, stopwatches and umpire/referee gear.

As Story wandered the baseball area, Mike Rubin spoke with a local football coach who wanted to prepare for his new duties as a high school lacrosse coach. Then, as Brogan Poll, an assistant football coach at Ogden High who works at SavOn, discussed elbow guards with two young softball athletes, Mike Rubin helped a man try on cleats.

And in Nakaishi's office, a youth baseball coach from Vernal — a city more than three hours away — stepped in to pick up his team's custom uniforms. SavOn retains an artist to help create custom uniforms for comp teams, slowpitch softball outfits and more.

Nakaishi says he makes a concerted effort to keep his store a place where local families can learn about the sports their kids play. He puts on a bat demo around February every year where players can come swing bats while he and his colleagues answer questions to help baseball and softball players find the right fit.

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Softballs sit on a shelf at SavOn Sporting Goods on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

Jeff Toller, head baseball coach at Viewmont High School, uses SavOn to outfit his team.

"There are places closer to me but I go there because I think it’s that important for our local sports community," he said.

Toller, who has also coached at Weber and Morgan high schools, recently had questions about new requirements and regulations for catcher's chest protectors. He knew he only needed one call to get educated — to Nakaishi.

"Half the coaches didn’t even know about the rule change, let alone people coming in to buy the stuff," Nakaishi said. "So if my guys aren’t knowledgeable about that stuff, we’re selling people stuff they can’t use."

— THE FUTURE —

During an eight-week struggle, Nakaishi didn't think SavOn would survive. He now gauges that, to coincide with PPP funds, there should be just enough business to get through the summer. While many cities have called off summer recreation programs, comp leagues are underway and some locations will still put on slow-pitch softball. Between personal cleat and glove sales and outfitting teams with uniforms, it's tough but survivable.

For now.

"Things aren’t as desperate, but we won’t really know until we find out what fall brings," Nakaishi said, calling up the state of Utah's staged approach to coronavirus protections and recovery. "I’ve talked to a couple cities that have said they won’t play tackle football unless we’ve been in green and have been in green for so long."

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The exterior of SavOn Sporting Goods is seen on June 1, 2020, in Ogden.

SavOn supplies a handful of cities, Layton included, with football helmets, shoulder pads, balls, tees and parent gear.

"If we end up losing out on the football season, I don’t know if we can survive," Nakaishi said.

Barfuss, Nakaishi and Toller all expressed hope that the greater Ogden area can rally and return the goodwill they perceive SavOn has built in the community for decades.

Just like Herman Rubin's first iteration of SavOn was pushed out to build a mall, Nakaishi feels the push from the era of big box stores and internet uber-convenience.

"I’m worried about my store, yeah, but I’m worried about all small businesses," he said. "Every field you go by, you used to see the small ma and pa shops advertise on every home run fence. Now all you see is logos for big corporations on the scoreboard who are trying to take over the world."

In numbers from 2019, the Small Business Administration says 47.3% of all private-sector employees work for small businesses.

"If all that goes out, what happens?," Nakaishi said.

He hopes his expertise and care for community relationships can win the day and keep SavOn going.

"Will it kill local sports if I’m not here? Maybe not," Nakaishi said. "But no local small business, everything done on the internet, that’s not the world I want to live in. I like those connections with people and knowing we’re all part of the community together."

Contact Brett Hein at bhein@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @bhein3 and @WeberHQ.

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