Farewell, Sport Shop

A Squaw Valley institution since 1978 will be closing its doors in April

Sport Shop employees Brent Osborn and Dan Forsythe help a customer try on boots recently. Photo: Melissa Siig

Squaw Valley Sport Shop employees Brent Osborn and Dan Forsythe help a customer try on boots recently. Photo: Melissa Siig

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.

Chris Willard, in the green dress, with her parents and sister in 1978, the year the store opened. Grandma is holding newborn Dax, who is now the shop’s general manager. Photo: Sports Shop collection

Chris Willard, in the green dress, with her parents and sister in 1978, the year the store opened. Grandma is holding newborn Dax, who is now the shop’s general manager. Photo: Sport Shop collection

Racers pose for a photo with Sports Shop owners Dennis and Chris Willard sometime in the '80s. Photo: Sports Shop collection

Racers pose for a photo with Dennis and Chris Willard sometime in the '80s. Photo: Sport Shop collection

Pique Willard, one of the owners’ sons, helps out in hard goods. Photo: Melissa Siig

Pique Willard, one of the owners’ sons, helps out in hard goods. Photo: Melissa Siig

Location, location, location. Photo: Melissa Siig

Location, location, location. Photo: Melissa Siig

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.”

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  • Sam

    Makes me glad to live at a resort that is locally owned.

  • http://www.mountainridersalliance.com jamie schectman

    I applaud Powder for reporting on this controversial move by one of their clients.

  • Veronica

    So sad!!!! Why do they have to remove local owned shops to make cookie cutter crap for the gapers. Keep it local, feed the local which is what makes the tourist come back!!

  • Dave Brown

    I worked at a locals shop in NH for years, Local shops help where they can at every turn. Seeing this shop be turned away over money is sad to say the least. I hope nobody shops at the mountain owned version.

  • Eric

    Another reason why Squaw has sold out for profits over roots traditions. What’s next? Have they not made enough money? “Maximize the space…” bullshit, Andy Wirth is just another Alex Cushing in disguise. A great mountain with lots of great diverse steeps and terrain….perhaps the best in the Tahoe North and South area…BUT the vibe has become so corp…its lost that old school flavor…oh well another reason I won’t ever be skiing/riding over there…Sugar Bowl is my kind of mountain:) Roots….

  • Mike Akay

    Hi! Hopefully, Andy Wirth will realize the value of a locally owned store with a long history and reconsider the decision to close the Squaw Valley Sport Shop. Thanks for your support!

  • Shelley Andersen Healy

    I worked at Squaw Valley Sport Shop for 6 years in the 90′s with J Mack and Siig. I am so sad that I just read this. Dennis and Chris Willard are great people and helped me grow up at the same time. Years later, when I come back to visit, Dennis still set me up with gear. What a shame that Squaw couldn’t work it out! Sad that it is all about money. You have to support the locals. They are your bread and butter. I won’t come shop at the “new store.” Sorry Dennis, Chris, Dax and Pique.

  • Jason H Chen

    It is a very sad day for Squaw Valley. I have been skiing Squaw since 1971 and I think the biggest loss for the resort will be that the retail landscape. Squaw’s retail shops will be very homogenized. Every shop will basically have the fingerprint of a head merchandiser and every shop will basically carry the same products. I think what makes for a more compelling shopping experience is a mix of retailers, who’s Point of view and merchandise mix is different. Additionally, the great vibe, the history, the legacy of a great retailer will be lost forever. I’m sure Squaw Ski Corp will do just fine in the Sport Shop space, but it won’t have the cache’ the Sport Shop did. I love skiing Squaw, but Squaw Valley Ski Corps retail shops will not have the kind of expertise a shop like Sport Shop or the Granite Chief use to provide Squaw Valley skiers and riders.Let’s not forget the personal relationships, and the following, retailers like Dennis and Chris Willard or Herb and Treas Manning established with their customers. You just can’t build something like that overnight. The retail experience at Squaw will definitely be on the colder side of warm and not so inviting. I guess I will only be buying coffee and maybe a muffin at the ski through Starbucks.

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