How has running a ski shop changed since you took over?
Our shop hasn’t changed much over the years. The same creaky wood floors, heavy door, and cash register from the original ski shop are still around. You have to understand when the big box stores came in, I couldn’t afford to modernize. I decided to keep everything as is, it was my only option for survival.
We have trouble throwing anything away. It can look like a yard sale with the vintage skis, boots, and equipment hanging from the ceiling and walls. We never had a telephone, intercom, or credit-card machine, which the boys later installed. I would dial all of my vendors “collect” on the only payphone I had in the store. The salesmen had to accept my call if they wanted the commission.
You likely saw some Olympians like Bode Miller grow up. Were there now-pro skiers who were regulars in the shop?
I was always amazed at their reaction when they came into the shop. Joannie Hannah, Gordie Eaton, and Bode were some of the top skiers of their time and always made me feel like I was on the right path. They were relaxed and seemed to genuinely enjoy coming in and hanging out with our customers and family. I remember skiing with Joannie and Gordie at Cannon a few times, and their talent was eye opening: Fast, strong, and in incredible shape.
What was it like growing up being expected to work at the store instead of hanging out with friends and being like other typical kids?
I became conscious of the situation when I was very young. It was the means to keeping my family together. We couldn’t afford to hire anyone from the outside, and I had to keep it going. I felt that my mother (Ann) and sister (Gladys) needed my help and it was on me. I went to college at Notre Dame and lettered in baseball until dropping out to return home.
There was never a day off—we didn’t have that kind of a system. If you were around, you worked. If you wanted to ski, you skied. It was a casual setup with the store being the focal point. Mom, Gladys, and I spent a lot of time with one another. The only way to keep our family together was the store, and the only way to keep the store together was our family. We tried to keep it fun, and Gladys and I would take an hour to ski while Mom watched the store.
We did all we could but had to work like hell to make it succeed. After the big-box stores came in, vendors wouldn’t sell to me unless they thought I was a good fit for their goods.
What was more successful early on: groceries and beer, or the outdoor stuff?
In the early days we had a successful system with local farmers. They would bring in their eggs, milk, and butter, and exchange it for overalls and work shoes. I didn’t know much about livestock or produce, but I knew they’d provide quality goods if they wanted to trade. I took selling skis very seriously from the beginning—kids couldn’t afford it in the area. If I was going to get them into the sport, skiing had to be affordable. Outfitting the children of the North Country became my goal, and I wanted it to become a sport they carried with them for the rest of their lives.
Discounting skis for the local kids nearly cost me the business. Vendors stopped talking to me, they didn’t want their products marked down. I was labeled a discounter. I used to go to the local ski workshops, and the salesmen would lock the door before I arrived.
Did you ever think about not selling ski gear anymore?
Never entered my mind. It was my ambition to always sell skis, boots, and poles. It was my responsibility to progress the sport and create alpine opportunities for the kids of New England. Without it being discounted, they could not afford it. Skiing was my living. My family’s living. We didn’t bitch about the cold, dark New Hampshire winters. We skied. Gladys and I always made a point to ski at Cannon during the week. We’d get out for a few hours in the afternoon and be back to the store in 15-minutes. It made life enjoyable.
What’s it like running a multi-generation ski shop?
It’s been an experience. How many family businesses are there in the world? How many are left? Not many. The shop allowed me to live a healthy life. I was able to explore the outdoors while still making a living. Not many people are as lucky. My sons have made it more successful than I could have ever imagined. I am proud that they have continued the tradition and remained rooted to our core values. They’ve always kept a positive attitude and helped families anyway they can.
What do you attribute the notoriety of Lahout’s to?
We always strived to prepare our customers for every element of New England: skis, snowshoes, dry goods, footwear, dungarees, overalls. Beer became a quick favorite too. Having these goods not only allowed us to take care of customers each season, but it created a relationship with our shop year-round. Rain, sunshine, snow, or mud, they were ready at any time of year. Many of our customers felt like part of the staff, especially when the store got busy. In the ’60s and ’70s I used to have routine shoppers answer the phone and bag groceries. They’d come back from a day of skiing and get put to work. They were part of the family.
Do you still ski?
I stopped downhill and Nordic skiing a few years ago when my wife got sick. I had to tend to her, and the weather started to become challenging. Since Loretta passed, I go with my boys to the mountain each day and watch the skiers from the sun deck. Young to old, I love watching people fly down the mountain, practicing their technique. I still get that feeling when I walk through the lodge and onto the snow. I will always be a skier.
>>A portion of the Joe Lahout film apparel proceeds will be donated to the Mt. Eustis Ski Hill (historical information below), as it empowers local children/families to become involved with skiing without the heavy resort price tag. Joe Lahout believes that if not for areas like this, he would never have learned how to ski nor learned the lessons the sport teaches. Items will soon be sold on www.lahouts.com.