To the trade, they're known "specialty" shops, because skiing is what they do best. Sure, you can save a buck at the big-box discount store out in the 'burbs, but be aware that the guy advising you on skis in December will be selling snorkels and golf clubs in May-and knows as much about each. Our advice: Find a specialty shop you like, get to know it, be a loyal customer. They'll share your love of the sport and take care of you. Here are some of the best, nominated for recognition by our readers-their happy customers.
NATIONAL SHOP OF THE YEAR:
It's well known that plenty of ski shop owners could stand a lesson or two. Not David and Reni Gorsuch, who met as athletes on the U.S. Ski Team. The Gorsuches got their start in the late '50s with tiny shops in Gunnison and Crested Butte, Colo., shuttling merchandise between the two stores. In the mid '60s, they opened a store at an upstart Colorado resort that friends warned was already overbuilt. Everyone knows how far Vail has come since then. The business has grown exponentially, with stores throughout the Rockies and a catalog business that roughly equals the retail space in sales, but the Vail store remains the flagship. It redefines the ski shop: Equipment sales and service are expertly handled, but nudged to an upstairs corner. The rest of the store is a lavish showcase of stylish homewares and mountain-ready fashions. Price is not an object, and in Vail, no one objects.
Northern Ski Works
Killington and Ludlow, Vt.
There's no tougher turf anywhere in America. On the Killington, Vt., access road, demanding East Coast skiers have their pick of a half-dozen highly competitive shops that must struggle ceaselessly to attract and retain the best employees. But in 20 years, Lori Budney's Northern Ski Works has gained a reputation for being one of the best in the country. It started with a commitment to quality service and tuning: Discriminating skiers soon learned to entrust their babies to the back-shop boys at Northern. That same approach now extends to every facet of the business at two locations. Today, the tunes are still peerless, and the staff is as sharp as those edges.
Nestor's Warming Hut
Here's proof that you don't have to be in world-class ski country to have a first-class shop. Pennsylvania isn't a land of big mountains, but Peter Nestor's customers get service that rivals anything found at top resorts. Chalk it up to owner-enthusiasm: Between hardcore heli trips to the Alaska's Chugach, Nestor manages the family business with energy and devotion that infects employees and customers. His wife, Karen, brings a stylish eye to the apparel offerings, and the shop, divided into distinct zones for each outdoor activity, is an appealing destination on its own right. It's a great place to spend a Saturday morning.
Viking Ski Shop
Viking holds the distinction of being SKI Magazine's first two-time winner of a regional shop-of-the-year award-a tribute to how good it is. So don't be fooled by its low-rent, urban location. Owner Bob Olsen could have opened glam satellite venues years ago, but decided he couldn't find the help. Above all, he's a stickler for staff who know the sport, and it shows. Viking salespeople are regarded as some of the most knowledgeable in the industry. If they don't know the answer, they'll find out, customers say. And like Olsen, they take pride in matching people with gear that improves their game.
Colorado Ski & Golf
Gerome Grady built a soulful shop that thrived in the shadow of much larger competitors. Now those rivals own the place-and have injected contemporary merchandising without compromising the hardcore feel. Under Tom and Ken Gart, who built and sold the Garts Sports empire, CS&G has grown to three locations, alll staffed by carefully trained and well-paid employees. The Aurora store showcases innovative ways of informing and engaging customers: banks of video monitors, internet kiosks and cool displays of the latest gear (like the '56 Chevy Nomad tricked out with Thule systems). It's shopping as entertainment, and a great place to wait for the season's first snowfall.
Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
It takes one to know one, which is why the owners of Footloose-three dedicated skiers-are so attuned to the needs of their customers. The husband-wife team of Tony and Andrea Colasardo, along with partner Corty Lawrence, are hands-on proprietors, likely to be out there answering questions on the sales floor. Unless it's a powder day, in which case the place to find them, as it should be, is up on the slopes. The shop, recently renovated, is appealing on its own, but in the end it's owner-passion that defines Footloose. Lawrence, son of U.S. Olympic heroine Andrea Mead Lawrence, is known as one of the best bootfitters in the nation. He sets a high standard for customer service throughout the shop.