This story originally published in the January 2016 issue of POWDER (44.5). PHOTO: Garrett Grove
Like a lot of kids, my first acquaintance with the world of skiing was in the local shop (the Snow Leopard in Evergreen, Colorado), renting skis with my family. It was a funky old place, an octagonal log barn that was full of dark corners, shiny skis, and the smell of hot wax. For 9-year-old me, it was like stepping through a portal to a new dimension. The murmur of strange invocations from the staff, the benches cluttered with inexplicable tools, faded old posters of topless ladies hitchhiking with skis slung over a tan shoulder, torn postcards from Kathmandu or Andermatt taped to the wall. Wizards with furrowed brows hunched over a wax-encrusted bench performing unknown rites as my family shuffled around like the other rental customers, eyes rolling like confused cows herded into an unfamiliar corral, puzzling over paperwork, and straining to understand why the boots had to be so tight.
There was a total immersion to the experience, walking into that low-slung barn, blinking from the bright cold Colorado sun as your eyes adjusted, the smell of wax hitting your nose before you could see a thing. You build a life around skiing and it all goes back to that tiny seed, that hot wax in the air, and someone kneeling on the floor, helping you get your boots on the right feet.
The Internet isn't going to grind your shells; Backcountry.com won't fix your blown sidewall tonight so you can get back on the hill tomorrow.
Historically, ski shops have had a huge influence on skiing in the U.S. They acted as little evangelical missions for the sport when it was obscure, and created a social center for skiers outside the resort. They were the original importers of exotic European gear and bootfitting tech, stone grinders, and the origin of now-standard products like footbeds and custom liners. They employed skiers, turning pimply rental monkeys into salty bootfitters and ski techs with calloused hands (you can tell them apart because the bootfitter has barked knuckles and more dust on their apron). And they gave customers a place to hand-flex the skis on the rack and froth at the mouth for powder days. And what skier doesn't love to flex the skis, to fondle the shiny trinkets, to sit on the bench and bullshit about sliding around in snow?
But in an era of Uber, AirBnB, and a whole World Wide Web of things conceived to disrupt traditional markets, it's easy to imagine those shops destined for the tar pits of history. And it's no secret that many of them have disappeared across the country as Internet retail has burgeoned. The Internet economy (not to mention the actual economy) has put a righteous dent in the prospects of many established retailers. And there are deals to be had online for sure—as long as you don't want the latest and greatest in a common size. Other than boots, ski gear is just another commodity; it makes sense for a lot of people to shop that way. And no doubt there are ski shops that were destined to go extinct in the modern era.
When I asked Tony Colosardo, co-owner of Mammoth's Footloose Sports since the 1980s, about ski shops closing in recent years, he started ticking off a list: "Well, there's the Ski Surgeon right here in Mammoth, that's gone now. And Porter's in Tahoe, in business for 63 years, closed spring 2014. And there's a number of stores and chains like Chick's Sporting Goods that have shut down in Southern California."
If you're reading this, you're probably a committed skier (or your dentist is, and you're killing time). Part of that commitment is investing in gear that works.
Colosardo notes that it's hard to tease apart the effect of drought winters, economic turmoil, mismanagement, and the growth of online retail, but he estimates he's probably lost 20 percent of his own ski sales to e-commerce. There's no hard data on the number of stores shutting down, but Snowsports Industries America, the industry trade group, reports that online gear sales represent about 25 percent of the total over recent years. That portion seems to be growing while sales at specialty stores have been static.
While e-retailers offer convenience and attractive pricing, they lack two things every skier needs: a bootfitter and a veteran ski tech. The Internet isn't going to grind your shells; Backcountry.com won't fix your blown sidewall tonight so you can get back on the hill tomorrow. You need someone to fix your boots and your skis, and that's not going away, even with the new iPhone. But it will if skiers continue to use shop resources, like trying on 30 boots, before going home to place an order for a few bucks cheaper on the Internet.
Beyond opening a mystical portal into the ski dimension, and just fixing your gear, a good shop—the one with that bootfitter and ski tech—are also the only reality check between marketing hype, our own stupidity, and hurtling down a mountain on slippery sharp planks. Every skier has to learn that the brand-new boots that feel the best are two sizes too big, that remounting those old bindings might not be the best idea, that you probably don't need to buy that ski in a 198. Everybody needs that check eventually. As we're learning from studying human behavior in the context of avalanches, our cognition doesn't always work that well, especially in a realm as esoteric and counter-intuitive as skiing can be. The ski industry marketing department isn't going to help you there, and neither are your own instincts. But Carl in the repair room will, in the bluntest of terms.
The Snow Leopard is long gone now, but there are still shops like it all across the country, real shops with history, staffed by people who love the sport and know what's up. If you're reading this, you're probably a committed skier (or your dentist is, and you're killing time). Part of that commitment is investing in gear that works. Flex the skis on the rack. Smell the wax. Support the shops that support skiing.
Hans Ludwig worked at Footloose Sports in Mammoth for over a decade and has written for Powder since 1997. Read more stories by Hans.