Larkspur resident Stephen Gordon grew up in the upstate New York town of Plattsburgh, near the shores of Lake Champlain.
More than a few decades later and 34 years after he founded Corte Madera-based Restoration Hardware, Gordon has brought his passion for the classic boats of that region – and its peripheral gear and apparel – to downtown Mill Valley.
Guideboat Co., a retail outfit occupying three buildings and some 5,000 square feet in the Mill Valley Lumber Yard at 129 Miller Ave., opened the doors to its retail shop quietly last week, hoping to serve as the anchor tenant for Matt and Jan Mathews’ revitalization of the historic property. The retail shop is in the lumber yard’s former mercantile building along the inbound side of Miller, while Gordon is using the former hardware store space to showcase some of his vintage boats.
“To do the kind of business we wanted to do, where we have boats and sailboats – this is an ideal environment,” Gordon says. “It’s a destination with so much history and character. To be two blocks off the plaza and to stand in the middle of the lumber yard and look at Mount Tam, it’s just breathtaking.”
Gordon and a small handful of employees moved into the former Mill Valley Cabinet Shop space at the south end of the lumber yard in February, using the space as an office and a workshop to craft both the business and the products at its foundation.
They started with an 1892 Adirondack Guideboat that Gordon owned, hoping to find a way to reproduce them in a cost effective way that didn’t compromise authenticity and quality.
“We approached the business not necessarily as boat builders do – but as a builder and a retailer,” Gordon says, noting that he wanted to cut down the price and wait time for such products. “I’m from a specialty retail background, where you make it as comfortable and convenient for people to get what they want.”
They used Gordon’s boat to make a mold of the Guideboat, a fast fixed-seat vessel that is not a canoe but shares some characteristics with one.
“Before the Hamptons or Nantucket were chic, the Adirondacks were the summering place of the Rockefellers and Roosevelts of the world,” Gordon says. “And Guideboats were the only way in or out.”
Gordon and his team also made their own version of a Maine Peapod, a boat that dates back to the late 1860s, as well as an 1840s-era Sabot, a boat that can either be rowed, sailed or powered by a motor. All three of the boats are being sold in Guideboat’s shop and on its (soon-to-debut) online store.
To do Guideboat right, Gordon says he didn’t simply want to sell boats, but to build a retail environment around them. That is, to create an experience wholly immersed in the Adirondack culture that inspired him.
“I decided to surround the boats with men’s and women’s apparel and accessories and took the kind of approach I did with Restoration Hardware,” he says. “Not everyone would want to buy a boat, but the boats are the center of the business - it’s not like Orbis hanging a canoe in their retail shop.”
More than 90 percent of Guideboat’s nearly 1,200 products were manufactured in the U.S. or Europe, according to Gordon, in an effort to maintain the products' ties to their place of origin. “If a hunting jacket came from France, that’s where our hunting jacket is made,” he says.
As Gordon and his team built Guideboat from scratch, his relationship with Matt Mathews evolved from landlord-tenant to partners. As Mathews dug into his efforts to retrofit and renovate the buildings on the 121-year-old property, he leaned on Gordon for the design of the interior spaces. The result in the mercantile building is a space that feels significantly larger and brighter than its predecessor, Mathews says.
“This whole thing has worked out really well,” he says.
The Mathews family’s renovation of the property they bought a year ago continues, and Mathews eventually must go to City Hall with a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application if he hopes to ink a deal with any non-retail tenants such as a restaurant or a café.
For now, Gordon says he’s thrilled with the results of their collaboration to date, and he hopes the community flocks to the transformation of the Mill Valley Lumber Yard. He says his instincts say that people will be drawn to a new business focused squarely on the boats, culture and apparel he’s been so inspired by his whole life.
“I trust my gut,” he says.
The 411: Guideboat Co. is located at 129 Miller Ave. in the mercantile building at the northeast corner of the property.