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End of An Era

Squaw Valley Sports Shop loses its lease
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If you skied at Squaw in the last 35 years, chances are you spent time at the Squaw Valley Sports Shop buying gear, getting your skis tuned, or just hanging out. The Sports Shop, which evolved into a Squaw Valley institution, became a tight-knit family of skiers that attracted a loyal following of customers and employees, many of whom went on to become Olympic athletes or icons of the Squaw Valley ski community.

That is why many Squaw skiers are mourning the fact that this will be the Sports Shop’s last year at the mountain. Unable to reach an agreement with Squaw Valley Ski Corp. about the terms of its lease, the Sports Shop will close by the end of the season.

'Anybody who has ever skied at Squaw has definitely been through our shop,' said General Manager Dax Willard, whose parents opened the store in 1978. 'We’re the ones who have always been there for skiers and the community and the people of Squaw Valley.'

Squaw Valley Ski Corp. notified the Willard family last week that the Sports Shop’s lease would not be renewed. According to Squaw Valley CEO Andy Wirth, the Sports Shop had been an issue for Ski Corp., even before he came on board last year. Wirth said the resort did not make the decision to end discussions with the Willards lightly.

'It was certainly not a decision that came easy for me or the team,' Wirth said. 'Because of the Sports 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.'

While neither Squaw nor the Willards are at liberty to talk about details of their negotiations due to a confidentiality agreement, the issue boils down to 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, who opened the shop with her husband Dennis, called it 'devastating.'

'It’s been our passion and heart and soul forever,' said Dax. 'I grew up in there [the shop]… This has been very emotional, but we are grateful for the way Andy [Wirth] has been accommodating with an easy exit.'

In addition to being one of the longest-running businesses in Squaw Valley, the Sports Shop became the go-to place for local skiers and riders and helped many get their start in racing. The shop outfitted Julia Mancuso, now a U.S. Ski Team member, 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 Sports 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 worries, that will be lost when the Squaw Valley Sports Shop leaves the mountain.

'They’ll lose the expertise, passion, all the uniqueness that we bring,' he said.

It’s not only pros and up-and-comers that frequented the shop, but some of its alumni are now household names in the skiing community. Former employee Jason Mack is now a guide for Points North Heli-Adventures in Alaska and was featured in Warren Miller’s 'Dynasty.' Tom Day worked at the Sports Shop for seven years in the 1980s, later becoming a professional skier and is now one of the foremost winter sports cinematographers in the country, filming for ski film companies like Warren Miller.

For people like Day, what will be lost with the Sports 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 became close friends who 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 said that helping the community was a priority for them. The store gave Mighty Mite parents a discount on uniforms, gave people a break on skis who couldn’t afford the price tag, 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 said. 'I think about all the generations we’ve helped … We’ve put our blood, sweat, and tears into the Sports Shop.'

The Squaw Valley Sports Shop store in Tahoe City will continue, but under a different name, Willard’s Sports.

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Reader comments so far...

Mike Thompson (not verified)
I am sure that a family owned Ski Shop at the base of Squaw, did not look good to the accountants @ Ski Corp. There will probably be another Ski Shop in the same space Next year. It won't be the same, its a loss to locals and visitors who ride Squaw Valley.

Jack MacDonald (not verified)
"It was certainly not a decision that came easy for me or the team", AW I wonder how Andy Wirth and his "team" sleep at night with this kind of ruthless behavior?"

Julie baker (not verified)
Hmmmm- sounds exactly like what happened to another Squaw Valley institution- Granite Chief when their lease was up for renewal last year........

Herb & Treas Manning (not verified)
"Times they are a corporate investment companies buy up ski areas the writing is on the wall for independent local businesses. Squaw Valley Sports Shop and Granite Chief were competitors in the valley for 35 years, it was always friendly and above board. Our hearts go out to the Willard family. If it is of any comfort there is life after Squaw Valley and your customers will find you in Tahoe City just as ours have followed us to Truckee. The most difficult start to the work day will be turning left on to Squaw Valley Rd instead of right to the ski area we all love. Your Friends, Herb, Treas, Gunner, Darren, and Darby, "

Kevin Moynihan (not verified)
$50 Burgers, squeezing out locals, looks like Squaw is gunning to be the the ski area for the 1%. Watch your back Aspen. Good luck Dax and family!!

Jamie Schectman (not verified)
Thank you to the Willard family for everything you did for the community.

Paul Schectman (not verified)
I have been a long term customer at Granite Chief since 1986, and I have continued to support then in Truckee. It not as convenient now that Granite Chief is located only in Truckee. However they are picking up many of the Northstar skiers. Start House is doing well in their Truckee locations. It will be an inconvenience for Squaw Valley Sport customers next year. The serious skiers will continue to support Granite Chief and Squaw Valley Sport outside of Squaw Valley.

Brian Williams (not verified)
sigh... another ski industry icon goes the way of corporate greed! Family business...refuge for ski bums..racers.."X-tremeist"...Jeff McKitrick..snowboarders..nudist...the list goes on! The ski industry changed through this shop from boot-fitting to liability signatures on rental forms..."skiing is a dangerous sport, it has risk.." GOD Bless the Willard Family and GOOD LUCK !!!!!

Jason Mack (not verified)
"I've been really fired up so far with everything that has been going on around Squaw. How ever Squaw Valley's decision to oust the Willards from their space has struck a cord with me. Starting in '93 I worked on and off for nine years there. Dennis Willard, to date has been the best person I've ever worked for. He put his employees before all else. Bonuses, Christmas Parties, free clothing, emergency loans, respect, gear sponsorship, ... end of year parties, it goes on and on. Even though it has been many years since my most recent employment at the Sport Shop. The Willards have allowed my family to use their shop as a base camp and locker room. My son Declan (6yrs.) has grown up in the shop and repair area in the clock tower. I shutter to think what kind of homogenized replacement KSL will fill that space with. I'm sure it will be new and shiny but lacking in what counts. After much corporate thought, a less than great decision was made. The Willards deserve a permanent sport in the village. I wish all the best to Chris and Dennis and their family. "

Warren Andrich (not verified)
As the trend continues, I am to the point that I hope that the Squaw village continues to lose quality merchants and that it becomes a ghost town. Enjoy your success! It seems to be working well for you.

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February 14, 2019