Two small bait shops grow into outdoor sports destinations

Hesperia Sport Shop and Frank’s Great Outdoors have a lot in common

By Shandra Martinez

Hesperia Sport Shop Inc. and Frank’s Great Outdoors are on different sides of Michigan, but they have a few things in common.

Both started as small bait shops and have grown into full-fledged retail stores that have become destinations for tourists. Both also transitioned into their third generations of family operation, with a pair of siblings at each store collaborating to take the businesses to the next level.

Starting small

Hesperia Sport Shop began in 1978 as a tiny bait shop that James Lavin’s stepfather, James Deater, bought to support his family as he scaled back to semi-retirement because of a heart condition.

“When he bought it, there wasn’t enough inventory for even a yard sale. He wanted to revitalize it. Fortunately, he was a really handy guy and could fix things up,” said Lavin, who was 14 when his family moved from Muskegon 30 miles northeast to Hesperia. 

He also brought a love of the outdoors and a knowledge of fishing and tackle to the business. The shop came with a home next door, where the family lived. Lavin’s parents kept adding to the business and making improvements. Seven years later, they sold it to Lavin and his older brother, Terry. 

At the time, Lavin was serving in the Air Force. When he finished his four-year tour and returned home, he had to work another job because the store didn’t make enough money to employ both siblings. 

During that time, the brothers continued to expand and remodel the shop so they could increase the inventory. Over the decades, the formerly 700-square-foot store has grown to 7,000 square feet to carry fishing tackle, archery supplies, guns, ammunition and apparel. 

Initially, they doubled the original store to 3,000 square feet by putting on downstairs and upstairs additions. Then they built a new larger store on the site of their family home.

“We had nowhere else to go. We were bursting at the seams and wanted to do more,” Lavin said. 

In 2001, they converted the old store into a motel, the All Seasons Inn. It’s not uncommon for the store’s customers to stay there.


(L-R) Jim Lavin, Paige Jibson & Meagan Guptill

Next generation gets involved

Hesperia Sport Shop is less than one mile from the Hesperia Dam, which is the upstream limit on the White River for steelhead, salmon, and walleye and a premier destination for fishermen from beginner to expert. It’s also within an hour’s drive of hundreds of lakes and streams and thousands of acres of federal land open to the public for hunting, trapping, and fishing.

Terry died in a hunting accident three years ago at 63, but Lavin has been fortunate that two of his children have joined him in the business. His two daughters, now in their 20s, have taken on important roles. 

“My middle child, Paige Jibson, went to college to be an accountant. She’s assumed all the office work, which is what my brother did,” Lavin said. 

His oldest daughter, Meagan Guptill, is an avid hunter and angler who has grown the store’s social media presence “through the roof. She’s doing these streamside reports from the store and has a huge following.”

The store began selling lower-priced merchandise, but over the years, it has added higher end products that reflect the tastes of its clientele. Lavin estimates 75% come from outside the area. The staff has grown to seven, including his daughters. 

Running the store is pretty much all-consuming. 

“You’re married to the business. So as far as coming and going, it isn’t like normal jobs where you can take time off,” said Lavin. “I was very hesitant with my daughters coming in because it could potentially turn into the same with them.”


Founder followed his passion

On the other side of the state, Frank Gorske turned his passion for fishing into a business in 1945 when he saw the need for a bait shop on Saginaw Bay.

“My dad learned how to fish in all the creeks in the Thumb of Michigan, and he really liked being a fisherman, so he quit his job at the factory and started a bait shop,” said Larry Gorske, his son. Larry now runs Frank’s Great Outdoors in Linwood, about 10 miles north of Bay City.

Frank spent his life chasing minnows in the area’s creeks. In the spring, he would pick nightcrawlers on the golf courses. He dug up water worms in the woods and put them on ground he prepared called a worm pit. Back then, his bait was mostly worms, crawlers and minnows for customers on their way to fish for perch or pike.

With Frank out searching for bait, his wife, Margaret, often ran the store with six kids in tow. While the kids grew up in the family business, only Larry and his sister, Judy, stuck with it until she retired in 2019.

Over the decades, the rise and fall of different fish varieties fed the growth of Frank’s Great Outdoors.

In the late 1960s, salmon were introduced into Michigan’s lakes as a predator to alewives, which were stinking up the beaches in mass die-offs. The big fish spawned a new industry.

“They bit lures and they were far too big for a traditional tackle. That was where it really started taking off, because you had to have a bigger rod and heavier lines that wouldn’t break. It created a heck of an economy for the state,” said Larry. “Our store started to grow because of all this tackle that they needed.”

When the salmon ate up all the smaller fish, the salmon industry fell off. By the ‘80s, a group started a walleye fishery that put the Bay City region on the map for ice fishing. 

“Now we’re the walleye capital of the world, which spawned another business with different kinds of rods, reels, and electronics. Again, Frank’s grew,” Larry said. 

‘Just keep adapting’

Over the decades, Frank’s has expanded into a 50,000-square-foot-store with another 20,000 square feet of warehouse space. Along with fishing gear, the store carries archery products, hunting gear, guns, and clothing. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the store shut down for 35 days, its presence finally took off online, a project that Larry’s youngest son, Pete Gorske, had been working on since 2000 when he joined the business after college.

“Getting all of our products on the web was very important to me, because if you go on our website and you don’t see it, you’re probably going to assume we don’t have it,” Pete said. “Our store carries over 2,000 different brands and probably 75,000 SKUs.” 

Those who walk through the doors will benefit from the staff’s high level of product knowledge beginning with Andy Gorske, Larry’s eldest son.

“I try out products. If I don’t have it in my garage, you probably don’t want it or it’s broken. It’s junk,” said Andy, who’s been accompanying his dad to industry shows since he was 12, which gave him a comprehensive industry education. “I don’t like to sell stuff that I don’t believe in.”

Andy is the personality of the business, says Pete. 

“There are probably not many people who walk in those doors that don’t know him or know my dad,” Pete said. “With a store like ours, there’s always a season, whether it’s hunting or fishing. The outdoors has grown into a pretty diverse crowd. There’s something for everybody. We just keep adapting to the market.”