SOMERSET — For decades, John Riley has been selling fun at the Ski House, a longtime Somerset fixture.
If you live in and around Somerset and love hitting the slopes, you likely have fond memories tied to the shop — from bus trips with friends to ski destinations to the start of a lifetime of skiing adventures.
"It's a happy place," said Riley, the owner. "It's a great business. You're selling fun to people."
Now Riley is looking to hang up his hat and pass the torch — or ski pole, rather — to someone who will carry on the legacy he and his stepfather built over the past 60-plus years.
After a successful run, the 75-year-old Somerset resident has decided it's time to change course.
He'll be taking a much-deserved break from the long winter days spent at his 1241 Wilbur Ave. store and retiring. But hopes to find someone to fill his shoes and keep the Ski House alive.
"I'd hate to just close the store and walk away so we're hoping to keep it going, for the sake of my employees especially," said Riley, who employs about 20 people both full- and part-time during the busy winter months.
Ski House is a full-service ski shop that offers ski and snowboard tuning and repair, equipment to buy, rent or lease, and winter apparel.
The business got its start in 1956 with Riley's late stepfather William Furze and his partner Norm LeComte, who sold ski equipment out of the basement of LeComte's Riverside Avenue home.
Both loved skiing and there was really no place to buy gear in the area other than rudimentary equipment at department stores. Also, the timing was right.
After World War II, people got established, settled down with families and had money and time for recreation, Riley said, and the ski business really took off through the '60s. So the pair saw an opportunity and hopped on board.
The Ski House eventually found a home at its current 1241 Wilbur Ave. location, in the same building as the popular Roger's Restaurant, in the early 1960s.
Riley joined the operation, helping out his dad at the shop part-time starting in high school. From there, the business steadily grew and Riley became more involved and more serious about operating the business, before taking over in the 1980s.
"It happened in the blink of an eye," said Riley, who took the reins after Furze retired.
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Over the years, Riley has seen the business evolve in many ways — from store expansion to industry-wide improvements in gear to its growing customer base and battling big chain competition.
He said Ski House became a lot more sophisticated as far as the equipment goes, especially in the last 10 years.
He's watched the slow evolution from wooden skis and lace-up leather boots with cable binding toward safer metal and plastic equipment that fits and performs much better. Also, the equipment to tune the gear is all mechanized now, whereas before it was all done by hand.
"Now we can do a better job, produce more gear, it's really made things a lot easier for everyone — safety-wise for the customer and profit-wise for the ski shops," he said.
Business was at its peak in the late '80s, Riley said, and the Ski House was so busy they expanded the store in 1988, putting an addition on the building that doubled its space.
Riley said they went through some tough times as big ski chains entered the picture. But Ski House weathered the storm, and those chains came and went while small shops like his remained.
"The big guys wanted to dominate and squash all the little guys and they just over-expanded," he said.
For a time, the Ski House was open year-round, selling various recreation gear in the warmer weather months — from bikes to kayaks to surf and skate boards to roller blades. But Riley said it's hard to make money at a ski shop in the summertime, so for the last 15 years it has closed up shop. They're open seven months out of the year, from late August through the first Saturday in April.
"We bumped along and survived many summers but it just wasn't worth it," Riley said. "It worked out for the better and I can recharge my batteries in the summertime and get back to work in the winter."
And while the pandemic had a negative effect on most businesses, Riley said due to its timing business actually increased at the Ski House.
Riley said they were fortunate that COVID closed everything down in March 2020, just before Ski House season ended, so it didn't affect them immediately. And by the time the next season came around, Riley said people had figured out how to get out safely and "getting up on a mountain was a great option."
While many folks prefer to shop from the comfort of their couch now, he said personal service that you just can't get online is what makes small shops like Ski House special.
"We treat our customers well," he said. "We go the extra mile waiting on them, advising them on equipment and clothing and things that they need."
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Riley said it's been enjoyable seeing generations of skiers — who come back with their kids and grandkids — walk through his doors year after year.
"A lot of families come back and we have relationships with them," he said. "You get to know your customers personally. You always appreciate when you go in the store and they call you by name."
Inside Ski House you'll find a big picture of Furze, who died in 2009. "He's the guy that got us started on our journey here... he would be so proud to see where the business is today," Riley said.
"I have a great customer base, people enjoy going to the store," Riley said. "I have a lot of employees that come back every year, people who have worked there over 40 years. … I've been very lucky."
Riley said he has no timeframe for closing up shop, but would like to leave Ski House in good hands before he does. The best-case scenario would be to pass it on to a current employee. He said he has spoken to a couple who have shown an interest, but no takers just yet.
The Ski Shop has been listed through Nery Corp. in New Bedford since late summer of last year. If interested, contact Justin Grolley of Nery Corp. at email@example.com or call 508-990-9800.