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Meager ski season spells Loulou’s end

Loulou's Ski Chalet manager Doug Gulbran marks down prices Wednesday at the shop, which is closing after over 30 years.
 (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Loulou's Ski Chalet manager Doug Gulbran marks down prices Wednesday at the shop, which is closing after over 30 years. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Loulou’s Ski Chalet, a Spokane institution for more than 30 years, will become the first major retail casualty of the worst ski season in years when it closes next month.

Business has been declining since Sept. 11, 2001, said owner Mike King, who bought the shop from its colorful founder, Loulou Kneubuhler, in 1996. But this year’s warm weather and wave of rainstorms ruined conditions at most of the region’s top ski resorts. And when there’s no snow, skiers and snowboarders don’t buy gear.

“It decimated us,” King said. “Of the last three winters, we’ve had two not very good ones. Then this last one was unprecedented. So even though we’re getting all the snow now, it’s way too late.”

King said the shop will close for good in early to mid-May. The Loulou’s store in Coeur d’Alene, however, will remain open because King has sold his share to his former partner, Toby Todd, he said. Another Loulou’s store on Spokane’s North Side closed in 2002.

Longtime skiers say Loulou’s closure means a loss of expertise and personalized service in boot fitting, ski tuning and gear selection.

Loulou’s staff has decades of experience in racing and coaching, and many former employees have become market representatives for major ski brands. King was on the U.S. Ski Team years ago.

“Those guys were awesome,” said Dennis Wilhelmsen, a master’s level ski champion from Coeur d’Alene. “They just really took care of the ski community. They had really good connections with the whole ski industry.”

Kneubuhler opened Loulou’s on Oct. 13, 1973, in an old house on the corner of Pacific and Sherman just east of downtown Spokane. Though it didn’t have great visibility, it became a destination.

However, competition increased, with department stores and big-box outlets entering the market, King said.

Other ski shops survived by adding lines of spring and summer gear, such as boats and bicycles. Ski gear was 90 percent of his business until the end, he said.

“We’ve never been able to get this location going as other than a ski shop,” King said. “The store in Coeur d’Alene is across from Home Depot. This location – it’s a very tough location, but it has the tradition as a ski shop.”

It has quite a tradition. The shop has won six national awards from Ski Magazine as one of the top ski shops in the United States and Canada. Its customer service even won the respect of competitors.

“One thing that Loulou’s did was it made me a better businessman,” said Vince Zimmer, owner of the Spokane Alpine Haus. The store “raised the bar in this town of customer service.”

Kneubuhler, who owns all the buildings on the Loulou’s block, said he plans to lease the building to another business.

He also said he’s had so many calls from people asking him to save Loulou’s that he’s entertaining the idea of reopening the business himself. But he’s not making any promises.

“Who knows?” Kneubuhler said in his strong French accent. “We may be able to put something together before the snow flies again.”

But most ski shop owners seem to agree that the memory of this ski season will make next year’s selling season an uphill battle.

“You always start with the season you came out of,” King said.

“All the ski shops in the Northwest will have a really tough fall next year because nobody will be shopping until they see snow on the ground.”