On the west coast the leader in outing equipment is Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI. On the east coast there is also a strong competitor in the form of Eastern Mountain Sports, or EMS. I figured EMS was a lesser supplier what with their smaller stores, and this impression was cemented when some marketing genius decided to dump the ubiquitous EMS name and mountain logo and replace it with the utterly ridiculous, vowel-free brand “ESTRN MNTN SPRTS.” If they had at least had the guts to drop the leading “E” I might have at least chuckled, as it is the god-awful new name makes me an EMS hater.
So when I found myself wandering into the new Harvard Square location and then being assisted by a knowledgeable salesperson and then purchasing a new pair of Keen sandals, my irrational hatred began to fade. The next day I realized that the spring clip on the right shoe was defective and not holding the laces tight. Today I wandered back into EMS with no receipt and the sandals on my feet and sought assistance. I was directed back to footwear, where the dude told me that they could get a replacement lace assembly from Keen or possibly swap out the shoes, but a better bet might be getting a sturdier spring clip. Where might I find one? Well, it seems that behind the front desk there is a kit chock full of buckles, fasteners, clips, and various other accouterments. We found the perfect clip for my shoes, I purchased two of them at 35 cents each, and the helpful salesman took my shoes apart right there at the counter and fitted them with the new clips. My new sandals with their sturdy new clips are awesome and I’m wearing them all the time.
So EMS rocks. They’re pretty much on par with REI. They sell a lot of the same high-quality clothing and equipment, their service is top-notch, and the staff is knowledgeable and helpful. I feel fairly comfortable recommending either of them at this point for general gear. Without additional experience I’d still have to say REI if you’re looking for any advice on, say, the sorts of camping supplies you need to buy to avoid hypothermia, or whatever. The other things you don’t get with EMS are the huge in-store selection of REI and the membership program that results in a fun year-end rebate check. On the other side, with EMS there are far more locations (Harvard Square for me, whereas the closest REI is in Fenway) and perhaps slightly better prices, not to mention an atmosphere that isn’t quite so overwhelming.