The Digital Skeptic: The Web Guts Bob's Sport & Tackle

KATONAH, N.Y. ( TheStreet) -- It looks like the local bait shop is joining the news, music and publishing industry as digital fish food. John Miller is sadly angling for this to be his last holiday here at Bob's Sport & Tackle.

"When I look at my life," he told me inside this dusty, wood-heated, two-room retail man cave down the road from the PepsiCo ( PEP) world headquarters, "I realize the future is not going to be here."

Miller got his start working at this fishing and hunting supply shop for his Aunt Lucy when he was 12. From the first day, he knew this was his place in the outdoor retail sun. He spent pretty much every spare minute -- 60 to 70 hours a week at times -- selling licenses, gear, sawbellies, along with the critical, intricate knowledge of where and how to use it all the right way in the nearby city reservoirs and woods.

When he graduated from Westchester Community College in 2007, Miller was the natural choice to take over from Lucy. And from then until a few months back, he and his brown marshmallow of a pitbull, Caesar, have been the kings of this sportsman's paradise.

So what's hunted him down?

"It's the Internet," he said. "I can't compete."

No place to hide
The sad part, for investors anyway, is that the Web was supposed to be trophy time for local experts such as Miller. The guy has the absolute lock on the critical local whereabouts of the overlooked monster freshwater fish that jam nearby New York City reservoirs.

Read it and weep, you sportsmen that drop ten large on hip holiday fishing junkets to Montana or Manitoba. Unbeknownst to most -- especially those online -- the biggest freshwater fish you're likely to catch are just 30 or so miles from Wall Street.

Why? "9/11 had a lot to do with it," Miller explained.

Accounts vary among the dozen or so state officials, other fishermen and guides I have spoken with, but apparently the ecosystem changed when New York City closed the reservoirs to public access for a few years after the attacks to sort out security risks. Since reopening, management is tight. There is a complex permitting and policing process that greatly reduces fishing pressure. And over time, the profile of the fishing stock has jumped, along with interest from serious fishermen. My Department of Environmental Protection-permitted boat has a standing $3,000 offer for it. That's 10 times the normal market value.

And trust me, after years of blundering around on these lakes for a decade, Miller is the go-to local expert for bagging the 40-plus-inch lake trout that lurk in these waters.

"If you know what you are doing," Miller says, "or I tell you what to do, it's a lock that you're pulling a big fish out of that lake."

But even armed with this kind of insider intel, there are not enough passionate sportsman like me to support Miller. The average customer simply uses the Web to drive down prices -- and drive Miller out of the game.

"Shoppers would just come in, look at what I sell, scan their cellphones and buy it online. Sometimes right in the store," he said. "I used to get mad about it. But there is no concept of supporting a local retailer."

To protect and serve
Keep in mind, Miller is far from ignorant to the dark arts of the Web. He has a website and knows how to score cheap gear at places such as eBay ( EBAY) or Cabela's ( CAB).

"But what kind of person would I be if I talk about protecting the local retailer and then I go killing the next little guy?" he said. "And who cares what I have to say. I am not Kevin VanDam, pro bass fisherman. I am just a master baiter."

Miller still hopes to serve the outdoor clientele he loves -- but in uniform. He's deep in the process of becoming a New York City DEP cop. To be eligible, back in the fall, he sold Bob's to his mother, who plans to hire a fellow named Felix to try to keep the place running.

But the macroeconomic bottom-scraping has been done. All the Web efficiency in the world won't make up for losing who knows how many high-margin, local merchants such as Miller that had the touch to do what Google ( GOOG), Facebook ( FB) and LinkedIn ( LNKD) can't: bake the high margin value of where they are into the products they sell.

Which, by the way, Miller absolutely knows.

"People don't understand the repercussions of not having a place like this around," he said.

No, my friend. They don't.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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