By MICHELLE JAMES, The Register-Herald
FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — Holly Fussell’s face lights up when she talks about outdoor adventures available in and around Fayetteville and the New River Gorge.
That hasn’t always been the case, though.
“It wasn’t an immediate love affair,” Fussell admits with a laugh.
The Georgia native was introduced to the area in 2004 by her husband Chris, who had begun rock climbing years earlier.
“We were living in Norfolk at the time,” she said, explaining the family “bounced” around for many years for Chris’ career in the U.S. Navy. “I’ve always been athletic, but I had never been exposed to outdoorsy, adventure sports and I just felt I wasn’t really good at them.”
Looking back, Fussell said it’s clear her aversion to the brand of outdoor adventure so popular in southern West Virginia was a product of fear.
“I just didn’t have the confidence that I could do it,” she said.
Though the couple continued to vacation in Fayetteville, Fussell spent several years sidelined from the action.
It wasn’t until their daughter showed an interest in scaling the side of a rock that Fussell decided it was time to really give it a go herself.
“We were out climbing with friends, and she (her daughter) was strung up in a rope and harness, halfway up the height of a building,” she recalled. “So that’s when the lightbulb clicked.
“I said I’ve gotta at least know what’s going on — know how to tie her in with knots and understand the systems and everything.”
Still wary of hanging from the side of a cliff herself, Fussell began going on small adventures with a climbing guide. That’s when, with a few encouraging words, her outlook changed, and a new passion was ignited.
“It was like, ‘Yeah, you can try it,’” she recalled. “‘You can do it. Let me show you how.’”
Those words put into action, she said, made all the difference.
“That’s the sense of community and empowerment you get when someone believes in you,” she said.
Things have changed a lot in the past 18 years. Even before Fussell fell in love with outdoor adventure, her trips to West Virginia always included stops at Water Stone Outdoors in downtown Fayetteville.
That’s the region’s one-stop shop for everything from running and hiking gear to climbing equipment and clothing for adventures — both on land and in water.
Through Water Stone, Fussell said, her family formed connections with not only founders Gene and Maura Kistler and their business partner Kenny Karper, but also with others – both locals and visitors — who shared similar passions and interests.
“We had this really cool community where we could keep in touch and come back and connect with friends,” she said.
Those connections strengthened even more in 2020. The Fussells, who by then had added a son to the family, had settled in Washington, D.C., where Chris worked full-time as a consultant.
Feeling “hemmed in” during the early days of Covid-19, however, they decided to take a trip to Fayetteville.
“It was supposed to be five days, and it turned into five weeks,” Fussell recalled.
The couple soon began discussing the possibility of a permanent relocation.
“The contrast with the life we were living in D.C. at the time during the pandemic was glaring,” Fussell said. “Chris and I toyed with it (the idea) for lots of long conversations and finally we just couldn’t justify being that constrained for that long and having our children caught up in it.”
And just a year after the move, in the summer of 2021, the couple had the opportunity to purchase Water Stone.
“We were researching and kind of thinking about where we could dive in and invest in a way with our time and resources,” said Fussell, who had previously worked as a teacher and a fitness instructor and had served on various boards throughout her husband’s military career.
“We didn’t want to just sit back and enjoy,” she continued. “We wanted to be part of what this next chapter looks like for Fayetteville and the area.”
The plan was formed “sort of organically,” Fussell said, explaining the decision to purchase the business came as a result of informal conversations.
In February, however, things became a bit more formal, as the Fussells officially took ownership. Though they are sole owners, Kenny Karper, who wasn’t quite ready to retire, remains on board to help ease the transition.
“I couldn’t do it without Kenny,” Fussell said. “He’s more than a right-hand man. His experience and knowledge about the products we sell and also the area are incredibly deep and wide, so it made sense for me as an owner to continue to have him involved.”
That knowledge is important, too, as Water Stone offers a wide variety of products. Fussell points out items on the building’s second level.
“We have (outdoor) backpacks, climbing harnesses, climbing ropes,” she says, pausing in front of a wall featuring ropes in various sizes and colors.
She points to a small wall with climbing pegs.
“We have a climbing wall where you can try out climbing shoes and see how they feel,” she said, adding customers can also sit in climbing harnesses to get an idea how they might feel in use on the side of a rockface.
Water Stone offers shoes and clothing for every outdoor adventure sport — climbing, hiking, biking, running and swimming — in every age and every size.
“We have really high-quality gear,” Fussell said. “That is absolutely what we stand by. But with that, there are pros and cons.”
The cons of carrying top-of-the-line items, she explained, are the barriers to entry that might come with them. That’s why the store carries consignment apparel and gear for both children and adults.
“It’s an option for people to recycle their gear and give it another lifespan,” she said.
While shoppers can find quality items at a reduced price, the sellers receive 80 percent store credit or 60 percent of the money for which the item sells.
“It’s a really nice alternative,” Fussell said.
Back downstairs, the store is busy with visitors, many of whom are in the area because of the New River Gorge’s recent designation as a national park.
“If it’s nice weather, we’ll be busy the whole weekend,” Fussell said. “During the weekdays, there’s sometimes a lull in the afternoons and it picks back up by 6 or 7.”
It’s the variety and quality of products, she said, as well as the customer service that attracts the crowd.
Just like the Fussells — though it’s mostly just Holly, as Chris continues his consulting work — the rest of the Water Stone staff are outdoor enthusiasts.
“It’s the expertise of our staff,” she said. “They are so knowledgeable. They learn what you’re looking for and how you’re going to use it so they can match you with the best gear.
Though still new to the business — as owners, at least — Fussell said she and Chris have plans for expansion.
“We’d like to own the building,” she said, explaining they currently rent the space. “And we’d like to expand the outdoor gathering space and polish it.”
Their goal, she said, is to create a space where the community can gather for lectures and videos.
“A place to see different adventure icons that are homegrown or from further afield,” she said. “We want to give them a stage and a venue to tell their stories.”
She said it’s those outdoor enthusiasts, much like Karper and the Kistlers, who have helped foster the spirt for outdoor adventures.
“I just want to widen our circle as to who belongs at Water Stone,” she said. “I want people to see it’s for everyone.”
Fussell said she’s excited for the future of Water Stone and hopes to pass on the kindness she once received.
“You can do it,” she said. “I’ll show you how.”
Water Stone Outdoors, located at 101 West Wiseman Ave. in Fayetteville, is open seven days a week.
For more information, call 304-574-2425 or visit www.waterstoneoutdoors.com.
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