From the Chairlift

May 25, 2024

Good News For Skiers

Just recently Helm of Sun Valley in San Mateo changed hands. I think this is good news for skiers. Gary Hohl had been the owner for many years and had decided it was time. After a pandemic and then a very serious fire at the shop (which crippled them for the last few seasons) and has now forced the shop to re-locate. Yesterday the new owner Tim, along with Gary and a few employees who are also friends of Cal Ski stopped by to introduce the new owner. They also needed to borrow a jig but that was just an excuse to have a visit. Tim seems bright and capable and hopefully the shop will bring him as much joy as California Ski has for me.

Now there are three of the four ski shops in the Bay area with new owners in the last 5 years. I think this is great news! As our world and society evolve, there are fewer and fewer businesses that are considered “specialty retail”. Stores that have an expertise in their product and have made it their living. Cobblers, tailors, butchers and the like. I see this type of place getting rarer. If you can buy it on the internet, why get out of your house? Maybe Jeff Bezos’ fortune comes at the price of the income of thousands of small business owners. We still have a vacuum cleaner store here in Berkeley, but I think that is getting to be the exception in most towns. Yet when I wanted to buy a vacuum cleaner, I knew where to go, and the address did not start with www. That visit cost me several hundred dollars that day, and saved me untold hundreds over time, as I still have that vacuum and can get any parts that fail. I have rebuilt it several times for a few bucks, and it keeps working like new.

There used to be a lot more ski shops in the Bay Area too. Now we seem to be down to four “core” shops. That means we do ski only without it being shared with a summer business that is a significant part of our overall business. I worry how long we will all last. Lucky for us there are things that a web site cannot do. It cannot fix your car, so auto mechanics are safe. It cannot mount your skis or sharpen the edges, so we have a niche left. But it has become much more difficult for us. We mount 3 times as many skis as we sell due to the power of the internet. We quit selling clothing several years ago for that reason. We could not compete for selection with the internet. Now our focus is on things that the internet cannot provide. For us boot fitting, shop work, and rentals are key.

We hope that while doing this we can impress you enough with our knowledge that you will come to us for helmets, gloves, poles or other accessories that you need. We know that you can read a forum about ski poles and order one to be delivered to your home. We try to sell enough custom boots and labor that we can still make a living. Therefore, as time goes by there have become fewer and fewer ski specialty shops. Eventually there may be none. Maybe there will be no “storefronts” of any kind? I read that someday we would have a fulfillment center near our home that would be 3D printers the car part or the pants you need on the spot to deliver to your door that day.

But for now, the opportunity for someone with a real passion for skiing and skiers to have a job in a “ski shop” still exists. I again wish Tim good luck at Helm and will gladly offer him any assistance I can. It is a tough go but there is plenty of business right now for 4 ski shops to service the millions of people in the Bay Area. My heart lies in specialty retail. The “big box” stores and the internet may be efficient in some ways, but there is still real value in expertise and buying the right quality product to do the job. I certainly know that some folks know this. I hope that we can keep convincing enough people of it to keep doing what we love. Gotta go now. It’s time to vacuum the floor before we open…