In a back room at Backcountry Essentials, ski technician John Dorman feeds a ski through the humming wheels of the shop’s Wintersteiger Micro 90 – a ski tuning machine the size of a small hot tub. The ski’s smooth black base comes out with a hint of texture, like a fingertip’s ridges. The textured base will accept more wax than the smooth, worn surface it had when it arrived at the shop, making for a faster ski.
The shop — a climbing, camping and skiing gear store at 214 W. Holly St. — bought its ski tuning machine last year from Fairhaven Bicycle. The machine cost about five times as much as Backcountry Essentials’ old tuning equipment.
“It’s a much bigger, better, badder machine,” said shop owner Chris Gerston. “As far as investment goes, for a small shop it’s a significant investment.”
The Wintersteiger is part of a change in Backcountry Essentials’ business model. Since 2006, Gerston’s ski inventory has consisted solely of boots and skis for backcountry skiing – light equipment is made for climbing up as well as skiing down. Now he’s carrying alpine skis and boots – gear made strictly for skiing downhill at ski resorts.
For a few years, Gerston had considered expanding into alpine ski gear. He seized an opportunity last year after Sportsman Chalet closed in January and Fairhaven Bicycle stopped carrying skis.
“With that big of a hole opening up our plan changed from us putting our toe in and testing the water to us jumping in all the way,” he said.
Alpine skis and boots now make up more than half the ski inventory at Backcountry Essentials. The shop also added alpine skis to its fleet of rental skis. Service is the backbone of most ski shops, Gerston said, so he invested in more versatile tuning equipment.
Local ski retailers say online sales have affected business in recent years, but ski shops remain viable in Bellingham. According to the Department of Revenue, $18.56 million was spent at sporting goods and hobby stores in Bellingham in the fourth quarter of 2013.
John Hauter, owner of Fairhaven Bicycle, stopped carrying skis and boots not because it wasn’t profitable but because the bicycle portion of his shop was growing, he said.
“It takes a lot of space to run a proper ski shop,” Hauter said. “There was too much demand. I either needed to get bigger or stop.”
Noel Lemke, owner of Sportsman Chalet, said he closed his ski shop because it got too hard for his customers to find parking. Sportsman Chalet moved from downtown to Sunnyland Square, next to Trader Joe’s, in 2010.
Since 2010, Trader Joe’s got increasingly more popular with shoppers, and it became too hard for Sportsman Chalet customers to find parking in the shared lot, Lemke said. Having moved the shop in 2010, Lemke knew another move would be expensive and he wasn’t willing to do it, he said.
Snowpack in the Cascades is currently at 50 percent of average, but Gerston said Backcountry Essentials is having a decent season.
“The switch is working out. It’s a hard year to judge because we don’t know how things would have gone if we had an average snow year,” he said. “We’re making our bills and we’ve seen a lot of new customers.”
Gerston said adding alpine gear to his shop wasn’t difficult because in many cases there’s not much difference.
“At the end of the day, skis need to be fast, well-waxed, have good bases and no burrs on the edges,” Gerston said. “With the tuning side of things it’s no different.”
Gerston calls the ski business a three-month business because skis sell almost entirely from November to January.
“The ski industry is fickle,” he said.
A lot of customers come in with skis they bought online, but fewer people buy boots online, Gerston said. Backcountry Essentials’ boot fitters help skiers find boots that fit right, they bake the boots’ liners for a custom fit, and they can also modify and reshape plastic boot shells.
Gerston said he’d like to be selling more skis, but the shop has seen a steady flow of customers who want ski tuning and boot fitting service.
“We put a lot of attention on ski and boot services,” Gerston said.
In response to the Sportsman Chalet closing, Yeager’s Sporting Goods, at 3101 Northwest Ave., also expanded the ski shop portion of its store this year, and now carries more rental gear and several new brands.
Yeager’s carries everything from hunting and fishing gear to food preservation equipment. Its ski shop sells skis, snowboards, boots and other gear for both resort and backcountry skiing. The shop also does custom boot fitting and tuning.
Dylan Rees, head of the store’s ski and paddle sports department, said the shop’s selection grew by 15 to 20 percent this year, and sales have grown by 20 to 30 percent. New brands at Yeager’s include Burton Snowboards, which Fairhaven Bicycle used to carry and was previously unavailable to other shops in the area, Rees said. Burton is one of the largest snowboard brands in the world.
Aside from Yeager’s, Gerston at Backcountry Essentials said his only other local competition is REI.
“Yeager’s and REI are competition that we like,” he said. “If I were to complain about anything it would be Amazon.”