Phil Leeds took a year off from college in 1974 and got a winter job at Skinny Skis.
Forty-five years later he’s still working there.
A few things have changed. Leeds did go back to college, graduating in 1977 and returning and buying part of the business. Skinny Skis founder Jeff Crabtree retired two years ago and recently moved to Montana. The cross-country skiing and clothing shop grew over the years in every direction in its building on West Deloney Avenue. And now Leeds owns the place, along with Scott O’Brien, another shop hire who liked the place so much that he bought in.
When Leeds joined, the gear was primitive by today’s standards, and the focus was still more on equipment than fashion. And there were no computers and no internet business, not even fax machines, just phones, paper and mechanical cash registers.
“The whole landscape is as different as night and day,” he said recently, “though the focus is still on Nordic skiing.
“That’s still who we are,” he said. “We try to promote Nordic in the valley as much as possible.”
Crabtree, a Jackson native, grew up here and went away to the University of Colorado and a college Nordic racing career. When he came home it was to a winter sports scene focused on alpine skiing and snowmobiling. The backcountry ski world that is so popular today hardly existed in the early 1970s.
There were cross-country skiers, but nothing as specialized as the race scene that Crabtree had flourished in.
“It was growing but in its early stages of popularity,” Leeds said.
The competitive racing scene that Crabtree participated in was new, and equipment not easily found in Jackson. Crabtree started Skinny Skis so he’d have his own gear and also a place to supply the young people he had begun coaching in the area.
If you envision the middle of the three doors at Skinny Skis today, the middle one is where the original shop started. It occupied about 500 square feet. The shop was about 12 feet wide.
One neighbor was a tiny office space for Hertz Rent A Car, about where Skinny Skis now has its shoe section. The Hertz space was absorbed.
In 1980 the 750 square feet of a next-door sandwich shop — Dicky and Donnie’s — became part of Skinny Skis.
The final addition was what’s now the western part of the shop, about 1,500 square feet that operated until the late 1990s as Ann’s Apparel, a women’s clothing store run by Lana Crabtree, Jeff’s wife, and his mother, Mary Jane.
Skinny Skis now has about 3,500 square feet on the retail floor, another 1,000 in back for offices, storage and ski tuning.
Crabtree’s original partner, Owen Anderson, sold his share of the business in 1984. Current partner O’Brien first worked as a ski tech in the early ’90s, was there off and on and moved into the shop’s e-commerce operations. He became a partner in 2013.
Since 1984 Skinny Skis has also operated Moosely Mountaineering, called Moosely Seconds until about five years ago, at Dornan’s in Moose. In the ’90s another Moosely Seconds was run on East Broadway, and in the 1980s there was a place called Pacific Mountaineering in Palo Alto, California.
Running Skinny Skis takes about 15 people during the busiest time of year. One employee was there 30 years before moving away; the current record-holder is Jenn Staph, there 20 years. Previous staff also includes Steve Sullivan and Brian Cousins, who later started Cloudveil. Sullivan then created Stio.
Many Skinny Skis workers used their time there “as a springboard to jobs in design, communications” in related outdoor businesses, Leeds said.
When Skinny Skis was younger it was still the days when you could see people skiing in jeans, but that time is gone, O’Brien said.
“That was the selection at the time — people used what they had,” he said. “But there are any number of makers now.”
The shift in prominence from gear to clothing is a major change in the business.
“There was a revolution in the 1980s and ’90s toward more clothing,” O’Brien said. “More manufacturers, more lines, more clothing for each aspect of the various sports, and also for more general wear.
“You walk into any store in town — us, Teton Mountaineering, Jack Dennis, any outdoor retailer — and apparel is the first thing you see.”
Dealing with a huge variety of makers, and surviving in a world that shifted to big box stores and then the internet makes the survival of Jackson’s small outdoor specialty stores the result of a lot of work.
“A lot of creativity goes into the business; it’s never business as usual,” O’Brien said.
“You have to be really nimble,” Leeds said.
O’Brien and Leeds estimated their customers break into thirds: locals, part-timers and tourists. The continuing and growing interest over the years in outdoor sports has been a boon.
“We’re fortunate in being in a really active community,” Leeds said. “It’s largely people who come to Jackson for the activities, climbing, hiking, skiing.”
Part of how Skiiny Skis stays close to its customers is through long involvement in activities that link it to the community via sports and other ways. Skinny Skis is a 40-year sponsor of the July Fourth 10K, now done with Pathways, and also a long-time backer of the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. Another sponsorship, 20 years, is with the Run and Ride for the Cure, which supports the cancer support fund of the St. John’s Hospital Foundation. Skinny Skis also sponsors the annual Avalanche Awareness Night, a prewinter gathering at the center of the mountain sports community.
Leeds said no big changes are planned in Skinny Skis and the way it does business, and he looks forward to 2024 and the shop’s 50th anniversary.
“At least that’s the plan,” he said.