John Kole works on a customer’s custom insole this week at One Stop Ski Shop in downtown Steamboat Springs.

Photo by Tom Ross

John Kole works on a customer’s custom insole this week at One Stop Ski Shop in downtown Steamboat Springs.

Indie ski shops flourish in downtown Steamboat Springs

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Brothers Brett, left, and Bruce Lee added additional space to Straightline Outdoor Sports this year to allow for a more efficient ski rental program and to improve the overall customer experience.

— Steamboat’s ski and snowboard retail scene runs the gamut from one of the nation’s largest sporting goods chains in Sports Authority to the truest of mom and pop shops — or, in the case of Straightline Sporting Goods, a bro and bro shop.

The greatest concentration of independent ski shops in Steamboat is in Old Town, three miles from the base of the ski area with a smaller bed base. But downtown shops carefully have honed their niches and are succeeding even in a down economy.

Brothers Brett and Bruce Lee have worked at Straightline since 1984 and have owned the shop since 1988. This year, they undertook an expansion into space that opened up adjacent to their shop at the corner of Eighth Street and Lincoln Avenue.

“We used the space to add to our ski rentals, allowing us to open up the rest of the store,” Brett Lee said. “It’s a much more comfortable place to shop.”

Rentals are the bagel and cream cheese for many ski shops large and small. Lee said that because the shop isn’t as convenient for ski vacationers looking for a weekly rental, they must compete on price.

“Our high-performance skis would be a (more expensive) demo on the mountain,” longtime employee Michael Boatwright said, hefting a dazzling pair of Volkl RTM75s that retails for $800. “We rent these for $26 a day. They could be $50 on the mountain.”

Located in a high-traffic center, Lee said the shop builds customers over time as people discover the variety of merchandise at Straightline (fly-fishing equipment to hiking boots) and return for high-end ski rentals on subsequent trips to Steamboat.

A few blocks away, tucked up against the Yampa River, Peter Van de Carr works hard to appeal to customers who deviate from the norm when it comes to winter sports.

“Basically, we sell all the nontraditional backcountry gear — Telemark skis and (Alpine touring) with a huge emphasis on Telemark,” Van de Carr said. “We are seeing a lot of interest in kids’ Telemark gear right now, and we stock rental Tele boots for them. Parents are worried the kids won’t be able to pick it up, but they don’t even seem to know the difference” between Alpine and Telemark techniques.

The youngsters like the Tele boots because they are light and versatile, he said. And in 2011-12, people are mounting Tele bindings on skis meant for Alpine mountains.

Back on Lincoln Avenue, Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare, across Fifth Street from the Routt County Courthouse, might have the biggest selection of ski boots in the mountains. Often, when people come into the shop for skis, they leave with new boots because veteran boot guru Bill Kipper has convinced them that they need better-fitting boots before they invest in boards.

“The right boot is imperative,” Kipper said. “Among seven of us, we have 150 years of experience in boot fitting. Mike Johnson has tried on every model of boot we stock and based on how they fit his feet, he’s taken notes” about their strengths and what type of foot they fit best.

Like Kipper, John Kole at One Stop Ski Shop, near the Yampa River on 11th Street, preaches the gospel of the custom footbed. And Kole is the one and only “Captain Comfort.”

For anyone who has unusual feet, Kole has the patience and perseverance to find them a comfortable fit.

“It isn’t always quick, but if you have the time, we’ll find a solution for you,” he said.

Kole keeps a thick three-ring binder with Polaroid photographs of customer’s feet and sometimes even footprints. It’s eye-opening evidence of how many people are skiing around with toes that permanently cross, large lumps on the side of their ankles and feet that are just plain twisted. Each photo is accompanied by notes on how Kole and his staff achieved a comfortable fit for their suffering customers.

“They really want to ski, and they come into the shop and say, ‘I have the worst feet in the world,’” Kole said. “I tell them, ‘No you don’t,’ and I hand them the binder.”

Kole prospers by building relationships with his customers and earning their referrals.

“We believe custom boot fitting is equal parts science, art and love,” he said.

Lead employees Pete Dawson and Andy Hogreffe have been at One Stop since 1989 and 1997, respectively. They know their stuff.

One of the most interesting niches in Steamboat’s ski retailing spectrum is that of Boomerang Sports Exchange, 1125 Lincoln Ave., where partners Matt Burditt and Lisa VanderGraaff have transcended the consignment shop they started out as.

“We’re still as much as 75 percent consignment, but we’re mixing in 25 to 50 percent new equipment from closeouts or last year’s demo equipment at 25 to 50 percent retail,” Burditt said. “Wholesale prices are what we’re going after.”

Burditt has big fat Majestic powder skis from Poland that are popular all across Europe but relatively unknown here and are meant to retail for $1,160. He sells then for $860 with bindings. And he’ll rent them to you for a day for $38.50 (less with coupons) if you’re not ready to commit.

He has new Karvena audio helmets for $64 that are fully certified and hard to beat at that price.

But another little piece of retailing genius taking place behind the scenes at Boomerang is their willingness to work with nonprofits, from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club to Utah’s Gear to Grow, to sell the donated goods that are leftover after ski swaps and silent auctions.

“We’re helping them to realize thousands of dollars of additional income,” Burditt said.

VanderGraaff, a hockey fanatic, said she takes particular pleasure in outfitting local youngsters with a complete set of gear for $100 or less.

“We just want to build the sport,” she said. “We aren’t taking a profit on the kids hockey equipment.”

Ski & Bike Kare partner Harry Martin was in Boulder this week, placing orders for the hottest Spyder ski jackets that will make the scene on Mount Werner in winter 2012-13. That’s right — Martin is buying clothes for the winter after this winter.

Many ski clothing companies aren’t manufacturing any more garments than they actually have orders for, and ski retailers have to stay ahead of the curve.

It’s a sign of the economic downturn that has forced retailers of all descriptions to run tighter and leaner.

“We used to make more money, but now we’re better at it, and that will carry forward into the future,” Straightline’s Lee said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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