Opened in the fall of 1974, Skinny Skis in Jackson, WY is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Jeff Crabtree, a Nordic racer who went to the University of Colorado Boulder and worked with the ski club in Jackson, wasn’t satisfied with local availability of cross country ski equipment. The solution? Open a store.
Founded by Crabtree and Owen Anderson, Skinny Skis began as a 500 square foot shop selling cross country ski equipment and apparel during the winter season from October through April. One of the store’s first vendors was Clark Matis, who went on to be one of the founders of the Merrell Footwear company.
In 1977, Phil Leeds joined Jeff and Owen as a partner, and the store began year round operations. A few years after that, in 1984, Anderson left the company to pursue his dream of sailing around the world. Forty years later, the store still operates in its original location. “For lack of a better name, we decided to keep the Skinny Skis name,” recalls Leeds. “Fueled by perseverance, determination and a bit of luck, the store continued to grow.”
Today, in addition to Nordic and backcountry ski equipment and apparel, Skinny Skis offers local expertise and products for backpacking, hiking, climbing and running.
Surrounded by some of the best outdoor recreation wilderness in the United States, Skinny Skis’ customer base includes local residents, part time residents (many of whom have second homes in the area), and tourists who come to visit the neighboring Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. When the snow flies, visitors are attracted to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort---recently voted the #1 ski resort in North America. Best of all, Jackson’s residents are active and passionate about the outdoors.
“The outdoors surrounding Jackson Hole and the two incredible national parks in our backyard is what the community revolves around,” says Leeds. “The majority of people are here because of the outdoor opportunities. The outdoors is the focal point of our community. As such it’s largely a tourist-based economy.”
Spectacular scenery and iconic national parks attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Jackson every year. Skinny Skis values these customers but strategically avoids being seen as a tourist destination.
“We are an authentic outdoor specialty shop," says Leeds. “Tourists who come to visit us are looking for that same level of quality and attention to service that we provide locals. The type of gear that many visitors are looking for is not too different from what the locals pursue.”
While Skinny Skis evokes thoughts of cold winter days and groomed trails, the store serves outdoor enthusiasts across a wide range of outdoor recreation pursuits. Road and trail running plays a central role in the store’s product mix. “We are an outdoor specialty shop but I would hesitate to call it a mountain shop, says Leeds. “Our attention is on self-propelled sports such as running, Nordic skiing and backcountry touring. We understand those activities and have a pretty good understanding of our clientele. We do our utmost to keep fresh with the trends that take place in those activities.”
Trail running has generated a lot of media buzz in recent years, and Skinny Skis has been serving those customers for decades. “We carry running equipment and apparel and feature road and trail running gear 365 days a year. Running is something we’ve always been comfortable with,” says Leeds.
Like most outdoor specialty stores, Skinny Skis has faced a changing competitive landscape. A dedication to customer service has created a loyal customer base. “I think we offer a terrific line-up of gear and clothing. But more importantly, service has always been Skinny Skis’ hallmark. If there is any one element that is more important to us than anything else, it’s providing the utmost in customer service. Without that, succeeding in this business is pretty damned challenging. Paying attention to customer service has to be the way you operate in this day and age,” says Leeds. “The vast majority of outdoor products are sold everywhere. You can get most items online from hundreds of different sites. And everybody has brick and mortar competition in their town. Either you have to play the price game---and that is not usually successful for very long---or you need to be prepared to step it up in the customer service arena. That’s what we strive to do.”
Serving customers means more to Crabtree and Leeds than selling gear. “Community service has always been something Jeff and I have felt strongly about. We enjoy working with a wide range of community organizations---from the local ski club, to environmental non-profits-- to the hospital’s oncology department---it’s a big part of what makes it interesting to come to work every day!”
Their annual Avalanche Awareness Night attracts more than 500 people. It’s been recognized as one of, if not the, most successful community avalanche events in the country. “Our goal is to provide, not only people new to the area, but veteran backcountry skiers with updates and information about what’s happening with avalanche safety. The event is also a fundraiser that generates around $10,000 annually for the avalanche forecast center in Jackson as well as our county search and rescue.”
At the end of a long day, Leeds enjoys performance track skiing in the winter and backpacking, fishing and running in the summer. To top it off Leeds is lucky to have his favorite trailhead just 3 miles from his front door---Granite Canyon in Grand Teton National Park.