MIDDLEBURY — Skihaus is back.
Long-time employees of the Alpine Shop, Barb Nelson and Anna Boisvert, closed on the purchase of the prominent Main Street business last Friday morning and by mid-afternoon sold their first items under their new name: Skihaus of Vermont.
“Buying the store has been a pipe dream, really, for the past five or six years,” Boisvert said last Thursday while doing a closing inventory at the store. “I’ve always thought, one day if I ever win the lottery, I want to buy this store … so here we are. We haven’t won the lottery, but at our age I feel blessed to actually be achieving our dream.”
“And doing it with your best friend makes it all that much more special,” added Nelson.
“I fell in love with the store when I came seven years ago and the people we work with are like family,” Boisvert added. “It’s just such an amazing thing; we love downtown Middlebury, love the community and we’re really excited to have the opportunity to do this.”
Both owners have years of experience at the business, which sells women’s and men’s apparel, some kids’ clothing, outdoor recreation apparel and some gear, and doubles as a ski, snowboard and bike shop.
Nelson, 50, who was born and raised in Middlebury and graduated from MUHS in 1978, had her first high school job working at Skihaus for original owners Neil and Alice Kavasnak in the 1970s. She eventually moved to upstate New York where she worked for several years in a ski shop near Titus Mountain in Malone. Nelson began working again for Skihaus under Rick and Karen Green in the mid 1990s when she returned to Middlebury.
“I came with the building,” Nelson jokes, but it’s not far from the truth. She has worked with the business under its different names — on and off — for more than 30 years, and she was among the original group of employees who started with the Alpine Shop when it opened in the fall of 1998.
“I do like the business,” she admits. “I like to buy and I love to ski, so that’s a plus.”
Boisvert, who was born in Florida and moved to Vergennes when she was 10, graduated from VUHS in 1984. She landed in Middlebury 10 years ago and started working at the store just a couple years later.
REVIVING THE NAME
Going back to the Skihaus name “just seemed like the right thing to do,” the owners agreed.
“The more people heard about the name the more positive energy we got from the community, and the more we began to like it,” Nelson added.
“It brings it back to where you live,” Boisvert added. “We’re local. And this name brings it back to being that really local business.”
For most of the second half of the 20th century, the ski and outerwear store had been a fixture in Middlebury’s downtown — much of that time in the same prominent location on the Main Street and Merchants Row corner of the Battell Block where the SkiHaus was for most of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. SkiHaus closed in the early fall of 1998 and reopened a few weeks later as the Alpine Shop, with Scott and Peg Rieley (who also own the parent store in South Burlington) as owners. Last summer, after 11 years, the Rieleys announced that they had other obligations and were looking to sell the Middlebury branch, while retaining the South Burlington store.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure doing business in Middlebury,” Scott Rieley said Thursday, “it’s been a ball, it really has. And I’m confident Barb and Anna are going to do a fantastic job of running this store … We’re thrilled to keep the business open and to sell it to owners who have a love of the community and a big stake in the town. We couldn’t be happier.”
GOALS AND HOPES
As for future plans, Boisvert and Nelson, who have been running operations for the past year or more, said they are planning a few minor changes but fully intend to keep the basic business (a clothing and outdoor recreation store that also serves as a ski, snowboard and bike shop) much the same.
“We really are a department store that sells skis, snowboards and bikes and all the accessories, always with an emphasis on customer service,” says Boisvert. Both said they hoped to be able to grow the business, partly by keeping the local customer in mind when buying merchandise, while also “giving back to the community.”
Popular brands of apparel at the store include Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Nau, Prana, Mountain Hardware, Marmot, Horny Toad, Tommy Bahama, Eileen Fisher, Maui Jim, plus a selection of winter and summer casual footwear including Merrells, Dansko and Frye Boots. The store carries a varied line of skis and snowboards, and several brands of road and mountain bikes.
They are ardent believers in the benefits of shopping locally.
“It keeps your community vibrant and healthy,” Boisvert said. “You live local and you shop local. If we all would put our dollars back into our local community, it’s like an ever-expanding circle … and everyone succeeds.”
Such community spirit has already won accolades from others.
“We’re just thrilled and delighted that they are buying the business,” said Bruce Hiland of the Battell Block. “It makes it even more of a community business and it’s been a seamless transition and good feelings all around. I heard there were giant hugs all around at the signing and we wish them every bit of good luck in the future and we’ll certainly do our part to help them in every way we can to strengthen the downtown.”
Hiland added that either the Skihaus or Alpine Shop has been “the visual anchor” of the downtown for the past 40 years, providing a steady and constant appearance of stability and vitality.
“It’s been extremely important for the aesthetic of Middlebury for all these years. It sends a message of vitality and youth, of recreation and a healthy lifestyle,” he said. “And these two women are terrific. Their mantra is to provide quality merchandise to the community at a fair price and to excel in customer service. What’s not to like?”
TAKING THE LEAP
On their decision to take the leap into business ownership, the two admitted that the process of buying the business took “a long time and we learned a lot, but for the most part it was very enjoyable,” citing help from Steve Paddock at the Small Business Development Center in Middlebury, Ken Perine at the National Bank of Middlebury, Bruce Hiland at the Battell Block, “support from our families and just a lot of help from a lot of local people along the way.”
“We would encourage anyone to pursue their dream, no matter how old they are or how scared they are,” Nelson and Boisvert said in unison, chiming in with infectious laughter and finishing each other’s sentences. “When opportunity knocks, just open the door … that’s all we did, and we’ve been running scared since … It’s exciting and terrifying all at the same time.”
“There were definitely periods of time that we had our doubts that it was going to happen and we just worked through it and readjusted and just did what we had to do,” Boisvert said, admitting some of the trying times in a six-month process that went from making the decision to buy to signing the papers.
Besides the worry about taking on the financial debt and risk, Boisvert pinpointed what had been on her mind during those final moments of truth.
“I think, for me, the most frightening thing was tied up in the signing of papers and all that, but the thought that ran through my head was that I had better be able to do what I think I can…. It’s that little bit of self doubt that creeps in, but you gotta just push it aside.”
“And stay positive,” Nelson added, “just being positive with each other and believing in ourselves and each other, and believing in our staff because we have a good staff — the best.”
In addition to depending on each other for support, their apparent can-do attitude throughout the purchase process bodes well as they gear up for spring and summer sales with their eyes on a big grand opening in the fall.
“Every obstacle we’ve come across, we just kind of plowed through it, taken care of it, or readjusted and gone around it and come back to it, and everything has worked out,” Boisvert and Nelson recalled. “We’ve been very lucky … and we keep a positive attitude. When you approach obstacles that way, they don’t become problems, you just find solutions.”