The stores, themed to represent each location's geography, draw customers for the hunting, fishing and other outdoor gear, but also laser arcades, aquariums, fly-fishing lessons and wildlife exhibits. There are conservation lectures at every store in auditoriums named after Morris' beloved UncleBuck, who introduced him to fishing and is memorialized with a bronze statue at the entrance to the store here.
Morris says Sam Walton used to visit the store in the 1980s with no shopping cart, just a pad to take notes. Not that Morris is opposed to a little copycatting: A late '70s trip to L.L. Bean's Maine flagship that Morris and his sister Susie Henry took provided much of the inspiration for the store here, which was opened in 1982.
"I thought, 'If they can attract all these people to Maine, I can do something similar in Missouri,' " Morris says.
There wasn't too much to brag about in Bass Pro's early days, but Morris learned a lesson in the importance of knowing your customers. Already a regular contestant and finalist for the Bassmaster Classic tournament in 1970, he watched closely to see what "secret lures" the winners used and bought them, as he says many of the winners were "upstart manufacturers" who sold the lures as well.
"It was far better than being a buyer sitting in an office at Wal-Mart," Morris says.
Uncle Buck also made hand-tied lures and "eels" from sowbellies that were bottled in baby-food jars. Soon, Morris' bait and lures were squeezing the beer to the side of his dad's Brown Derby liquor store, where he got his retail start. Within two years, Morris was selling catalogs for $2, and his grandmother, aunts and sisters were holding "mailing parties."
Family has always played a big role at Bass. Morris' father-in-law's company installed the first big aquarium; wife Jeanie, an interior decorator, helped design the gift shop at Bass Pro's Big Cedar lodge; sister Susie set up the company's computer system in 1976; and sister Carol Robinson continues to help with marketing and public relations projects.
Morris, 61, can be a hard guy to pin down — even to work for — but his apparently authentic "aw shucks" attitude makes him a hard one not to like. He's casual and unassuming to the core, a slightly built man who favors khakis, open-collared shirts and listening more than talking.
At breakfast recently at the Big Cedar lodge in nearby Branson, Morris' family got uncomfortably close to flattery. Jeanie said she's "never seen anyone as loyal as he is with friends and family." Daughter Meg, 19, says, "The greatest lesson he's taught me is humility."
Says Morris with an embarrassed grin: "Stop it, that's enough."
Jack Emmitt, who started 29 years ago as the first fishing department manager and now works as a consultant, says Morris "wasn't the best talker" back in the early days. Having accepted dozens of awards for both conservation and retailing since, Morris has developed if not the gift of gab, at least a bit more comfort at the podium.
Accepting the National Retail Federation's Retail Innovator of the Year award last year from Kathwari, Morris was choked up as he gave most of the credit to his employees and his late father, who was his "biggest hero" and "the most savvy merchant ever to come down the pike." By the end of his remarks, in which he apologized for the video introduction — "sorry that big advertisement ran on so long" — Morris was hardly the only one sniffling among the thousands in the crowd.