By Melissa Siig
In April, come the end of the 2011/12 ski season, a Squaw Valley institution will be no more. After three decades of serving Squaw skiers, and helping some along on their journeys to becoming pros and Olympians, the Squaw Valley Sport Shop will close its doors after failing to negotiate terms of a new lease.
For many local skiers, the shuttering of a shop synonymous with Squaw’s ski culture represents a huge loss.
“We were definitely the locals’ store and the locals’ hangout on the mountain,” said Chris Willard, who opened the store with her husband Dennis in 1978.
Last month, Squaw Valley Ski Corp. informed the Willard family that its lease would not be renewed. According to Squaw Valley CEO Andy Wirth, the resort did not take the decision lightly.
“It was certainly not a decision that came easy for me or the team,” Wirth said. “Because of the Sport Shop’s longstanding history, we gave it a great deal of thought. But we have an obligation to make the most out of that space.”
Talks between the Willards and Ski Corp. stalled over money.
“We were fundamentally not able to come to an agreement on the value of the space,” said Wirth, adding that Ski Corp. had tried to make the relationship work. “We have gone above and beyond to extreme ends to help them succeed over the last couple years.”
For the Willards, who have lived and breathed Squaw Valley and skiing for the last 35 years, Ski Corp.’s decision came as a major blow. Chris Willard called it “devastating.”
“It’s been our passion and heart and soul forever,” said General Manager Dax Willard, Chris and Dennis’ son. “I grew up in there… This has been very emotional.”
However, Wirth said that Dax Willard will act as a consultant through the transition, and may even be hired on for next season.
In addition to its standing as one of the longest-running businesses in Squaw Valley, the Sport Shop became the go-to place for youth racers and local skiers and riders. The shop outfitted Julia Mancuso, now a standout on the U.S. Ski Team, with her first pair of skis when she was on Mighty Mites—Squaw’s youth ski program. Olympic snowboarder Nate Holland had his foot-beds made at the Sport Shop before he turned pro, and the shop made the custom boots Jonny Moseley was wearing when he won the gold medal in mogul skiing at the 1998 Olympics in Japan.
It’s that institutional knowledge and personal touch, Dax Willard worries, that will be lost when the Squaw Valley Sport Shop vacates the village.
“They’ll lose the expertise, passion, all the uniqueness that we bring,” he said.
It’s not only pros and up-and-comers who frequented the shop—some alumni are now household names in the skiing community. Jason Mack, a Sport Shop ski tech from 1993 to 1999, is now a guide for Points North Heli-Adventures in Alaska and was featured in Warren Miller’s Dynasty. Tom Day also worked there for seven years in the ‘80s, later becoming a professional skier and now one of the foremost winter sports cinematographers in the country, filming for ski film companies like Warren Miller. With its prime location at the base of the mountain next to the tram building and neighboring the popular watering hole Le Chamois, other Squaw pros, like Olympian Jimbo Morgan and freeskier Jeff McKitterick, used the store’s repair shop as a hangout and a place to stash their skis.
For people like Day, what will be lost with the Sport Shop’s departure from Squaw is more than just an historic ski shop.
“Sometimes the shop was about service to the community as much as anything else,” said Day, noting that the Willards, who became close friends, helped him out in a bind. “They would give me short-term loans; they helped me personally. That was the uniqueness of working for a mom and pop.”
Chris Willard said helping the community was a priority for them. The store gave Mighty Mite parents a discount on uniforms; held a race night where they sold skis wholesale to Mighty Mite and junior development families; and even let Mighty Mite kids come in and grab goggles, gloves, or poles if they lost an item on the hill and still wanted to ski… billing their parents later.
“We have a store in Tahoe City, but it’s not the same as being on the mountain,” Chris Willard said. “I think about all the generations we’ve helped. … We’ve put our blood, sweat, and tears into the Sport Shop.”
Mack, who said the Sport Shop was one of the best employers he ever had (and threw the best employee parties), recently took his six-year old son to the shop to buy a pair of boots. Dennis Willard refused his money, he said.
“I got weepy,” said Mack. “They’ve given a lot.”