Holly Fussell’s face lights up when she talks about outdoor adventures in and around Fayetteville and the New River Gorge.
It was not always like this.
“It wasn’t an immediate love affair,” admits Fussell with a laugh.
A Georgia native, she was introduced to the area in 2004 by her husband Chris, who had started rock climbing years earlier.
“We lived in Norfolk at the time,” she said, explaining that the family “hopped around” for Chris’ career in the US Navy for many years. “I’ve always been athletic, but I’ve never been exposed to outdoor adventure sports and just didn’t feel like I was really good at it.”
Looking back, Fussell said it was clear that her distaste for the type of outdoor adventures 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.
Although the couple continued to vacation in Fayetteville, Fussell spent several years away from the action.
It wasn’t until her daughter showed interest in climbing the side of a rock that Fussell decided it was time to really try it herself.
“We were climbing with friends and she (her daughter) was suspended from a rope and a harness halfway up a building,” she recalled. “So that’s when the lightbulb clicked.
“I said I have to at least know what’s going on — know how to tie them with knots, and understand the systems and everything.”
Still wary of hanging off a cliff himself, Fussell began going on little adventures with a climbing guide.
With a few words of encouragement, her attitude changed and a new passion was sparked.
“It was like, ‘Yeah, you can try,'” 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 that you get when someone believes in you,” she said.
A lot has changed in the last 18 years.
Even before Fussell fell in love with outdoor adventures, her trips to West Virginia always included stops at Water Stone Outdoors in downtown Fayetteville.
This is the region’s one-stop shop for everything from running and hiking gear to climbing gear and clothing for adventure – on land and water.
Through Water Stone, Fussell said, her family forged connections not only with founders Gene and Maura Kistler and their business partner Kenny Karper, but also with others – both local and visiting – who shared similar passions and interests.
“We had this really cool community where we could keep in touch and come back and meet up with friends,” she said.
Those connections got even stronger in 2020.
The Fussells, who had since added a son to the family, had settled in Washington DC, where Chris worked full-time as a consultant.
However, they felt “restricted” in the early days of Covid-19 and decided to take a trip to Fayetteville.
“It was supposed to take five days, and it ended up being five weeks,” Fussell recalls.
The couple soon began discussing the possibility of moving permanently.
“The contrast to the life we led in DC back then during the pandemic was striking,” Fussell said. “Chris and I played with it (the idea) for a lot of long conversations, and finally we just couldn’t justify being so restricted and letting our kids get caught up in it for so long.”
And just a year after the move, in the summer of 2021, the couple had the opportunity to acquire Water Stone.
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“We did some research and thought about where we could dive in and invest our time and resources,” said Fussell, who previously worked as a teacher and fitness instructor and served on various boards in her husband’s military career.
“We didn’t want to just sit back and enjoy,” she continued. “We wanted to be a part of what this next chapter looks like for Fayetteville and the region.”
The plan came about “kind of organically,” Fussell said, explaining that the decision to buy the company was the result of informal discussions.
Things got a little more formal in February, however, when the Fussells officially took ownership.
Though they are sole owners, Kenny Karper, who wasn’t ready to retire just yet, remains on board to ease the transition.
“I couldn’t do it without Kenny,” Fussell said. “He’s more than a right hand. His experience and knowledge of the products we sell and also the area is incredibly deep and broad so it made sense for me as an owner to continue to involve him.”
This knowledge is also important as Water Stone offers a wide range of products.
Fuzz indicates items on the second level of the building.
“We have (outdoor) backpacks, climbing harnesses, climbing ropes,” she says, pausing in front of a wall of ropes of different sizes and colors.
She points to a small wall with climbing pins.
“We have a climbing wall where you can try out climbing shoes and see how they feel,” she said, adding that customers can also sit in harnesses to get an idea of how they feel when using them on a rock face could feel.
Water Stone offers shoes and clothing for every outdoor adventure sport – climbing, hiking, biking, running and swimming – of all ages and sizes.
“We have really high quality equipment,” said Fussell. “We absolutely stand by that. But there are pros and cons with that.”
The downsides to wearing premium items, she explained, are the barriers to entry that might come with it. That’s why the store carries consignment clothing and gear for both kids and adults.
“It’s an option for people to recycle their gear and give it another life,” she said.
While buyers can find quality items at a discounted price, sellers receive 80 percent credit, or 60 percent of the money the item sells for.
“It’s a really nice alternative,” said Fussell.
Below, the shop is busy with visitors, many of whom are in the area due to the recent designation of the New River Gorge as a national park.
“If the weather is nice, we’ll be busy all weekend,” said Fussell. “Sometimes during the weekday there is a break in the afternoon and it starts again at 6 or 7.”
It’s the variety and quality of the products, she said, as well as the customer service that draws the crowd.
Just like the Fussells – although it’s mostly just Holly as Chris continues his consulting work – the rest of Water Stone’s staff are outdoor enthusiasts.
“It’s the expertise of our people,” she said. “You are so knowledgeable. You’ll learn what you’re looking for and how you’re going to use it so they can match you with the best gear.
“We try to be very thoughtful.”
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Though she’s still new to the business — at least as an owner — Fussell said she and Chris have plans for expansion.
“We’d love to own the building,” she said, explaining that they’re currently renting the space. “And we want to expand and revitalize the outdoor meeting space.”
Her goal, she said, is to create a space for the community to gather for talks and videos.
“A place to see different adventure icons, local and from further afield,” she said. “We want to give them a stage and a place to tell their stories.”
She said it was these outdoor enthusiasts, much like Karper and the Kistlers, who helped nurture the spirit for outdoor adventure.
“I just want to expand our circle of who belongs to Water Stone,” she said. “I want people to see that it’s for everyone.”
Fussell said she looks forward to the future of Water Stone and hopes to pass on the kindness she once received.
“You can do this,” she said. “I’ll show you how.”
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Water Stone Outdoors 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.