27 Nov The Enduring Spirit of a Gloriously Analog Ski Shop
Prioritizing customer service over clicks, Village Ski Loft continues to thrive after 50 years by adhering to its old-school ethos
Village Ski Loft in Incline Village has a smell. Like the apartment of a favorite ex, a hotel room on the first day of vacation, the growing-up home of your best friend. It’s the smell of both expectation and memory. It’s the discovery of finding yourself in a place where you maybe haven’t spent the most time, but in that moment, there’s no other spot on earth you’d rather be.
In Village Ski Loft’s case, it’s also the alluring, consumer-driven waft of new skis leaned up on the eastern wall like epoxied, sharp-edged soldiers—top sheets, some matte black, others nostalgia neon, standing sentry waiting to be gazed upon. It’s the delight of melted wax cooked up from the workroom, the factory-fresh blends of unboxed fabrics, stiff and almost too new to the touch. It’s gloves ready to find their hands, and smooth, rainbow-lensed goggles waiting to mirror the sun. It’s boots lined up in the corner, plasticky and shiny, showcased like rows of new cars at a dealership.
And then, someone opens one of the glass entry doors, and an early-winter Tahoe breeze of pine needles and chimney smoke makes its way in. It starts out cold in your throat, but soon washes down the drudgery of what got you here and fills you with anticipation. You, after all, are about to get outfitted. You’re about to go outside.
For people like me—and we are a lucky legion—the smell of Village Ski Loft is Lake Tahoe.
The Perfect Layout
“This place does have something. It gets under your skin, really,” Aaron “Elko” James says on a late fall morning between inventory checks and unboxing new skis, poles, boots and apparel.
At 43 years old, James is Village Ski Loft’s general manager and veteran employee. The Elko, Nevada-raised (hence the nickname) torchbearer of Tahoe’s longest-tenured ski shop came on at age 19 as a seasonal worker in the winter of 2000 and never left the second story of the otherwise nondescript building at the corner of Tahoe and Northwood boulevards.
After climbing the flight of stairs to the entrance, Ski Loft customers are greeted by a modest attic space with surprisingly high ceilings, no more than a couple thousand square feet. Skis (and bikes in the spring and summer) and accessories on one side, soft goods on the other. A rental counter on the east wall, a glass display with goggles and sunglasses toward the west. Shoes in the center, jackets near the front windows, pants and base layers at the door. Repair shop hidden in the middle. Rental gear stowed toward the back.
And that’s it.
Whether this layout was planned or whether it matriculated over time to become the perfect blueprint of the ski shop, we’ll never know.
One-Stop Ski Shop
In theory, a customer could step into Ski Loft stark naked and in a single turn through the store end up completely outfitted: long underwear, pants, base layers, jacket, goggles, helmet, socks, boots and, of course, a brand-new pair of skis or board. A whole new kit, within minutes. All that is needed to shed gaper status and go find some lines through the trees. Ready for adventure. No fuss. No upsell.
Along with the olfactory buzz and tactile high of new gear, it’s this sheer strategic convenience that helps the store endure. But there is another element to it—and that is simply being there. Because to get anything (or everything) from Ski Loft, you have to be at Ski Loft. That too is by design.
“There’s a commercial we did in the early 2000s that says, ‘You can’t get this with the click of the mouse,’” James says with a laugh, recalling the early days of online sales and Ski Loft’s purposeful resistance to it. “But we stuck with that. At the end of the day, what we do here at Village Ski Loft, you can’t do that with the click of a mouse. That’s why we’re here.
“We still truly believe people come back to us because we’re nice, we’re here and we’re full of knowledge. We’re also out there on the mountains, learning more about it ourselves. We also know what’s available as far as gear goes, what works here. And people know you can’t get certain things by looking at a screen.”
50 Years and Counting
Has this seemingly old-school ethos hurt Village Ski Loft?
“Maybe in the past,” James says. “But everything kind of comes full circle. People, I think at one point or another, came in and saw what we had, maybe tried on boots, ordered it online and were disappointed with the results. Who hasn’t had that happen? For now, I think people are just glad we’re still here and happy to come in and spend a little time.”
Only a handful of legacy ski shops remain around the Tahoe Basin. Granite Chief Ski & Mountain Shop, near the base of Palisades Tahoe, was founded in 1976. Tahoe Dave’s in Tahoe City opened one year later, followed by Alpenglow Sports in 1979. The Powder House mini chain of ski shops on Tahoe’s South Shore came along in 1994, and Truckee’s Start Haus and Tahoe Mountain Sports both opened in 2004.
But as the calendar turns to 2024, Village Ski Loft will celebrate its landmark 50th year in business.
“It’s hard to believe,” James says. “But also, in a sense, not really. We’ve built up an enormous amount of expertise over the years and I think the people who’ve been through here, from new hires to those who’ve dedicated their life here—well, whether you’re a second- or third-generation [customer] or it’s your first time through the door, you’re treated the same.”
James credits this consistency to his mentor and longtime Village Ski Loft co-owner, Mike Croke, who died in 2022 at age 69.
Croke, who began his career as a freestyle skier and became one of the most well-known and well-regarded ski and boot reps in the West, used Ski Loft both as a testing ground and his own personal dais.
Whether he was selling tickets to clinics that taught skiing the right way in the 1980s or showing a family of four just why their feet hurt so much at the end of the day, as he’d comically wrench his body around in ill-fitting boots, Croke—along with his Ski Loft dog mascots—is still in the DNA of the shop.
“You’d be surprised how many people, reps especially, still come in here and tell stories about Mike,” James says. “The ski business is a small one, and when you have a figure like that … in a very real sense he’s still here.”
Croke’s presence at Ski Loft goes beyond storytelling and vivid memories. His belief was that no person or business was a satellite, and he always made sure to loop others into his orbit, James says.
From long-standing partnerships with Diamond Peak Ski Resort—especially with the juniors and learn-to-ski-and-ride programs—to helping another local business under the radar, “he always had his hand out to pull someone up with him,” James says.
A short item from a June 11, 2011, Reno Gazette-Journal gives heft to this notion. Croke had enlisted a local start-up landscaping company called Estate Landscape to help with a small garden space next to the store’s entrance. The landscaper obliged and Croke suggested he post a sign among his work so passersby and patrons would see it. “It’s a smart marketing approach and beautification all at the same time,” Croke said.
It was this attention to detail and love for the community around him, starting with the little things—dogs, kids, families—that James says still defines the atmosphere there today.
“I started this program several years ago called ‘Starts with Y.O.U.,’” James says, unable to stifle a chuckle. “I think a lot of the employees give me a hard time, because, you know, the acronym stuff. But it starts with how you treat people the moment they come into the store, taking pride in yourself, taking pride in this place and taking care of every single person who walks in, whether it’s a new customer or a lifelong friend.
“That’s really Mike’s legacy.”
Once every fall, usually on a weekend morning, I’d hear my father rummaging through the storage closet of my parents’ Incline home. The signature hollow, metal clang of ski poles followed by the inevitable crash of skis coming down from the wall. A pause, then some grunting and “dammits,” followed by the unmistakable clomp, clomp, clomp of ski boots crossing the concrete slab.
A few minutes later, he’d come up, flushed and energized, and invite me with him to Village Ski Loft.
Once there, he was, as many long-tenured customers are, equal parts easy mark and pain in the ass. He’d hem and haw about his old gear, arguing with whoever was unlucky enough to draw him that day about whether his skis just needed a tune to go “one more year,” while trying to convince the employee that his two-decade-old boot liners, now coughing up Styrofoam, just needed some repair and would be good to go.
After putting up a fake fight, he’d invariably walk out with something new.
His last pair of skis were never ridden. They sit in my garage today, a decade old but still brand new, edges sharp and clean, rust-free; Village Ski Loft stickers affixed unsoiled onto the top sheets. The initial layer of wax has yet to touch snow. Every so often, when I walk by them, I lean in and take a whiff. They smell like him, like home.
Andrew Pridgen is a contributing editor for SFGATE, reporting on Central California. During the decade Pridgen lived in Incline Village, he applied to work seasonally at Village Ski Loft all but one winter. He was recently told his résumé is no longer on file.