Family ties run deep at 'America's oldest ski shop'

Special to the Sunday News
January 26. 2018 5:49PM
Ron Lahout, left, and nephew Anthony, who are now partners in the family business, on the front porch of the original Lahout's store. Joe Lahout grew up in the apartment upstairs and lived there until his death. His son Herbert, one of four children, now lives there. (MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL)

LITTLETON -- Walking into Lahout's Country Clothing & Ski Shop on Union Street feels a bit like entering a friend's home. The floorboards on the front porch creak welcomingly as you climb the stairs. The front door, sturdy and slightly worn, swings open to a charmingly uneven wood floor inside. And there's usually a Lahout - or someone who's worked there long enough to feel like part of the Lahout family - behind the counter.

"We're not a place where you go in and everything is stainless steel," said Anthony Lahout, 29, who has recently joined his uncle Ron Lahout as a partner in the family business. "It's a very local vibe."

Anthony is the fourth generation of Lahouts to help run the store opened by his great-grandparents, Lebanese immigrants Herbert and Annie Lahout, in 1920. While the sign out front claims Lahout's as the "Oldest Ski Shop in America," it wasn't until the 1940s, when skiing was in its early glory days here, that skis first appeared in the front window.

That addition to the inventory inspired a slow pivot from the store's original dry goods and basic groceries to a focus on skiing and outdoor gear and clothing.

Joe Lahout, who died in 2016, one day past his 94th birthday, grew up skiing at Littleton's Remich Park and Mt. Eustis, and later at Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch State Park. He loved the sport that was taking hold in New England during his formative years, so when he returned to his hometown after serving in the Army during World War II, he added a few pairs of Northland skis to the inventory.

The small shop that Herbert and Annie started in a front room of their home, Joe expanded, keeping some grocery items as he added more ski gear and outdoor wear. His sons, in turn, opened more shops, first Lahout's Discount Warehouse up the street in the 1980s, a shop south of Franconia Notch in Lincoln, and now a total of six stores between the two towns.

"My dad kept a butcher block here," Ron Lahout said, pointing to a space between a wall of skis and racks of winter clothing. "And the beer cooler was there."

While the beer cooler is long gone, the original Lahout's retains a sense of history. Skis from various eras line the walls. Old cash registers and vintage ski boots mix with merchandise. Joe's ski sweater is framed near the front door. Ski memorabilia - from a WWII-era 10th Mountain Division uniform to several pairs of skis and race helmets worn by Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller, who grew up nearby - are displayed prominently or tucked into corners.

The woodwork framing the front door holds myriad signatures, from local Olympians dating back more than a half century to up-and-coming racers and the occasional politician. Signed posters of former U.S. Ski Team members are hung throughout the store, and sepia photos of skiers from long ago hang on the walls, along with framed articles from a slew of newspapers and magazines, many inspired by a 2015 short film Anthony Lahout wrote and produced in conjunction with Stept Productions.

"We literally made (the film) just so my family could have it," Anthony said. "It just spiraled out of control."

Anthony Lahout, who studied finance at Bentley University and earned an MBA there, had been out West working in brand marketing for Spyder and Smith Optics. But he started coming home more, skiing at Cannon, spending time with his grandfather - and jotting down notes about his family and their business.

He wanted to make a film about his grandfather, whom he describes as "one of my best friends." He had a few contacts in the active outdoor film industry and approached Nick Martini of Stept Productions with the idea.

Martini also grew up skiing at Cannon, and he was game. So they followed Joe around for a few days, talked with him about his many decades in the ski biz, took photos of him at Cannon and his home above the shop, the same home where he was born in 1922.

The three-minute film ended up at the Telluride Film Festival, and media outlets from Outside and Freeskier magazines to major newspapers around the country picked up the story about the oldest ski shop in America and the man who had built it.

What did Joe Lahout think about the hubbub inspired by his grandson's film?

"I think in the end he was pretty touched by it. He grew up in a world where he worked 24/7 and didn't get recognition," Ron said. "He had a little bit of an edge about the industry. He was all about our family. I think he was pretty proud."

Since that media flurry, Anthony has been working to rebrand Lahout's, and to make sure this fourth-generation business continues to flourish in a world of social media and e-commerce. He's become a partner in the business, sliding into that role as his father, Joe Jr., has moved toward retirement.

"The family-run business is almost extinct. It's definitely a dinosaur," Anthony said. "But you have these modern brands. and they want to be in this kind of business, because it's different."

The keys to success, said both Anthony and Ron, are keeping good people on board (Lahout's employs some 50 people, and most managers have been with the company for 15 years or more), expanding gradually, maintaining ties with the local community, and changing with the times, in part through strategic alignment with various brands.

"We've maintained our diversification," said Ron Lahout, noting each of the Lahout's shops has a different focus - North Face and Patagonia stores in Lincoln and Littleton; a Nordic ski focus in the original store; an Alpine-focused shop and another concept store in Lincoln; and the popular discount warehouse. "We don't really leave anybody out. And when it's a bad winter, we still have a lot of product that people want."

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