New Paltz climbing guru Rich Gottlieb philosophizes about preserving our local landscape and way of life

(Lauren Thomas)

For more than four decades, Rock & Snow in New Paltz has been home base camp for outdoor enthusiasts, especially those drawn by the gravitational pull of the Gunks. The store and its Rock & Snow Consignment Annex are owned by Rich Gottlieb, and he and his staff are knowledgeable and passionate about rock climbing, bouldering, hiking, skiing, cross-country skiing, backpacking, camping, snowshoeing, running and the Great Outdoors; some even serve as trail guides in their free time. Since its founding in April 1970, Rock & Snow has been the go-to place for rentals and purchase of well-designed equipment, clothing and gear to help people safely enjoy the beauties and demands of being in nature.

Gottlieb didn’t intend to be a retailer though. He grew up in Queens and was perhaps encouraged to pursue an artistic path by his father – the famous writer/photographer, William Gottlieb, who gained renown for his photos of Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and countless other Golden Age musicians and personalities.

“I started climbing when I was 21 while attending an art school in Georgia, and it became a bit of a focus,” Gottlieb says. “When I came to SUNY-New Paltz for graduate school, it was partly because of climbing. On a lark, I took a part-time job at Rock & Snow.” He eventually left art behind to be the store’s manager and, in 1990 following a fire that destroyed the building, became a full partner with then-owner and local climbing pioneer Dick Williams. A new and larger store opened in its present location in 1993, and seven years later, Gottlieb bought the business from Williams. “Then it became more my life.”

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“Art is hard – it’s hand-to-mouth, and you often have to kiss up to a certain individual to survive – but with retail, you have to be nice to everybody. Retail made me kinder and more open,” he says. “I’m good at communicating, and I can help in my own small way. Not everyone can be a teacher, doctor or lawyer, but we can all still help.”

When asked about a typical day at the store, Gottlieb tells a story about a climber who was visiting the Gunks from Hungary. His car was in the parking lot with a dead battery and – long story short – Gottlieb drove him to Advanced Auto so that he could purchase a new one. He also lent him tools from Rock & Snow to put it in. “I didn’t tell him to call a cab company. Making friends: That’s my job here,” says Gottlieb. “I try to keep work and play not separated, and I’ll go away sometimes for a week or so because we have a great staff here. Sunday is my family day, and sometimes I’ll take a weekday off to go climbing. When we took my daughter to New Hampshire to look at colleges, I took a little time to go climbing and hiking at Mount Washington.”

Today, Rock & Snow may be the oldest independent store in the country that is focused on climbing, Gottlieb suggests, adding that as the store approaches its 50th anniversary, few independent outdoor stores remain.

“The world is always changing, and we’ve got to be who we’ve always been in these new environments,” says Gottlieb. “When I started here, we had a brass cash register. We had to figure out change. We had to push the keys, hard, to ring up a sale. Since then, hiking boots have become almost fashion – pseudo- versus real hiking boots – and I sort of blame the North Face. We dropped them many years ago. Once products that were used for a special purpose become commoditized, proving their worth and value can be a challenge and, says Gottlieb, “Pandora’s Box is open. We’ve got teachers teaching to the test, doctors who can’t spend more than ten minutes with a patient…it reminds me of that line in The Elephant Man: ‘I’m not an animal, I’m a human being.’ That’s the good fight: to remain a human being through all these changes.”

The number of Gunks cliffs open to climbing has remained fairly steady over the years, but nowadays there are people who are gym-climbers who never climb outdoors. There was once a county in England renowned for its corduroy, and another known for its cashmere. Now, Gottlieb says, “The most valuable thing is the name of the company, not where the product is made, its factory, its people, the heritage of the people who made it. Knockoff products are made in China and, to survive, we almost de-emphasize how fast the train is running. We adapt.”

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