Save this content for laterSave this content on your device for later, even while offline Sign in with FacebookSign in with your Facebook account Close

In 50th year, Mountain Chalet holding on to roots in Colorado Springs

March 9, 2018 Updated: March 9, 2018 at 10:13 am
0
Caption +
Jim and Elaine Smith, the third owners of Mountain Chalet, photographed on Wendesday, March 7, 2018. The store is celebrating its 50th anniversary. (Nadav Soroker, The Gazette)

It's a typical lunch hour at Mountain Chalet, which means Jim and Elaine Smith are greeting gear-seeking customers, renting out skis, fitting snowshoes, answering questions, and munching on popcorn when they can.

"There's always something to do," Elaine says. "It's as simple as that."

But the owners are all smiles in their 50th anniversary of the downtown Colorado Springs staple. The two are into their third year of realizing a dream Jim had in the early 1990s, when he was seeking his master's degree in business administration and drafting a plan for a shop. He called it the Outdoor Toy Store.

A serious adventurer - he and Elaine's first date was bouldering on Los Angeles' Stoney Point - he had a particular idea for his "toy store."

"I didn't want a traditional shop that called itself an outdoor shop but just sold soft goods," he says.

The dream was in Mountain Chalet when he first stepped in. The hippest clothing was sold, sure, but the focal point was everything from carabiners to crampons to ice axes. A culture had been established: This was the place where hotshot climbers and backcountry skiers gathered to swap notes and prepare for their next foray.

And owner Dan Foster was ready to sell.

"After 30 years in retail, I just didn't have as much fire in my belly or that balance between exercise, family and the store," he says from his Manitou Springs home. "I wasn't willing to devote all my attention to it anymore."

Jim and Elaine Smith, the third owners of Mountain Chalet, photographed on Wendesday, March 7, 2018. The store is celebrating its 50th anniversary. (Nadav Soroker, The Gazette) 

Since buying the Chalet in 1984, Foster saw sales take a hit with the internet takeover and the arrival of bigger competition. "It wasn't just REI," he says. "Manufacturers were selling against us."

The big brands, such as North Face and Patagonia, were opening their own storefronts, expanding their online sales, and making prices steeper for the little dealers.

But since its beginning as the outpost for taboo outdoorsmen at the time who depended on a similarly taboo American industry, the Chalet has found a way for a half-century.

"Expertise and experience and the ability to impart it," says Matt Chmielarczyk, an employee of nearly two decades who dresses to work like the other 18 employees, as if he's bound for the trail. "That interaction between customers and us is imperative to this business. It's the only thing we have at this point."

That is the enduring legacy of the Chalet. It was started by Kent Kane, seemingly unlikely in his shirt and tie, looking like the guy who in 1968 would turn a blind eye to the mountain crazies with their tattered clothes and long hair.

"Even though he was strait-laced, he hired employees who could relate to the oddballs coming in," says Foster, who was among the employees then.

Jim and Elaine Smith, the third owners of Mountain Chalet, photographed on Wendesday, March 7, 2018. The store is celebrating its 50th anniversary. (Nadav Soroker, The Gazette) 

Among the oddballs was Jimmie Dunn. He's now a climbing legend, as are many of the shop's first regulars.

"I remember buying my first really good climbing rope at the Chalet, $38," Dunn says.

Before then, he and fellow dirtbags scavenged for shabby equipment at thrift stores or Army surplus stores.

"It was a big deal, a huge deal," Dunn says of the Chalet. "You went in there, and there was actually all kinds of climbing gear. I mean, it was exciting."

A stout bunch held court inside. Bragging rights were fiercely held. Ascents were claimed in a logbook that inspired heated arguments. Respect, like information, was earned.

"It was a different breed," says Ron Leasure, a Chalet employee who shopped there in the '70s.

Today's loyal customer base has been built through a departure from that initial environment - "snobby," says Chmielarczyk, who now considers it his job to "help people get their psych on."

As Foster expanded the 1,900-square-foot space to 8,000 square feet, he also grew the shop's charitable giving to conservation groups, and that continues along with the warm welcomes to mountain beginners. He's seen the Smiths continue his vision - and deal with the same strains.

"The internet has certainly cast a spell over the industry as far as availability and pricing," Jim says. "Amazon can pretty much sell things for whatever they want and manipulate the system, and that certainly puts the burden on us."

Getting outside, his and Elaine's first passion, has been another challenge. "I call us a 50-year startup to a certain degree because of the nature of the business," he says. "But we'll find our balance - we'll find our balance."

Register to the Colorado Springs Gazette
Incognito Mode Your browser is in Incognito mode

You vanished!

We welcome you to read all of our stories by signing into your account. If you don't have a subscription, please subscribe today for daily award winning journalism.

Register to the Colorado Springs Gazette
Subscribe to the Colorado Springs Gazette

It appears that you value local journalism. Thank you.

Subscribe today for unlimited digital access with 50% fewer ads for a faster browsing experience.

Already a Subscriber? LOGIN HERE

Wake up with today's top stories in your inbox

Wake up with today's top stories in your inbox

or
Already a print subscriber?
Already a digital subscriber?
 
This is your last FREE article for the month
This is your last FREE article for the month

Subscribe now and enjoy Unlimited Digital Access to Gazette.com

Only 99 cents for Unlimited Digital Access for 1 month
Then $2.31/week, billed monthly, cancel anytime
Already a print subscriber?
Already a digital subscriber?

 
You have reached your article limit for the month
You have reached your article limit for the month

We hope that you've enjoyed your complimentary access to Gazette.com

Only 99 cents for Unlimited Digital Access for 1 month
Then $2.31/week, billed monthly, cancel anytime
Already a print subscriber?
Already a digital subscriber?
 

Exclusive Subscriber Content

You read The Gazette because you care about your community and the local stories you can't find anywhere else.

Only 99 cents for Unlimited Digital Access for 1 month
Then $2.31/week, billed monthly, cancel anytime
Already a print subscriber? Get Access | Already a digital subscriber? Log In
 
articles remaining
×
Thank you for your interest in local journalism.
Gain unlimited access, 50% fewer ads and a faster browsing experience.