In 1958, ski boots were still made exclusively of leather. Most skis were still made of wood, and instructors debated whether Howard Heads aluminum “cheaters” had a future. Bindings didnt work very well, and the most talked-about item in ski shops across the country was the new-fangled stretch pant.
That summer, Ed and Gale Crist, a young Denver couple who taught skiing at Winter Park, opened a ski shop on West Colfax in Lakewood. They called it Christy Sports, after the christiania — the skidded turn every new skier had to learn. They hired Clyde Smith, a skilled skimaker from the Groswold Ski Factory in Denver, to run their repair shop.
Like every good ski shop of the era, Christy Sports smelled endearingly of wool, leather and pine tar. Skiers hung out at the shop in the fall and on winter weeknights, talking about Steamboats Buddy Werner, who had just won the Lauberhorn combined the first American to do so. They were also excited about Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk, scheduled to open that Thanksgiving, and about Clif Taylors new short-ski teaching technique, which he called the Graduated Length Method. No one doubted that Colorado skiing was about to boom.
Boom it did, and Christy Sports grew with it. Like smart ski dealers across the country, Ed and Gale sold their sport aggressively to non-skiers. They hired their own ski instructors and sent busloads of first-timers up into the mountains. They launched a ski club, Christy Skiers, to keep interest high among their new converts.
The sport changed rapidly, and the Crists kept pace. Heads aluminum skis did catch on, to be followed quickly by aluminum and fiberglass skis from Rossignol, Kastle, Fischer, Hart, Volkl, K2 and two dozen other brands. Ed Scott introduced aluminum ski poles. Bob Lange began making plastic ski boots just up the road in Broomfield later he even made Dynamic skis there. Bindings improved, especially after plastic boots came in, with their stiff, predictable soles.
And tourists came to Colorado to ski, by the hundreds and thousands.
By 1969, five years after Vail opened, Christy Sports had grown beyond the Crists management skills. They sold the business to Hays Busch and his son-in-law Paul Ulrich. Ulrich was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado when he met and married Buschs daughter Terry. Busch was a California advertising executive and amateur electronic engineer. Together they explored ways to modernize the business. In 1974, for instance, Busch turned a Heathkit homebrewed computer into the first electronic point-of-sale register.
The family was eager to expand Christy Sports to the mountain towns, where a fresh load of out-of-state skiers arrived every Saturday, ready to buy skis and skiwear. In 1970, Christy Sports acquired shop space in Vail and in 1972 they opened a store at the brand-new Copper Mountain. Over the next fifteen years the company opened stores in Avon, Dillon, Frisco and Crested Butte, while expanding across the Denver/Front Range market. Busch retired in 1984, leaving the 18-store empire in the hands of president Keith Van Velkinburgh and general manager Brad Henry, who had starting work in the Vail and Copper stores when they opened. Other key early hires were Joy Lutton (1971), now purchasing chief, and Craig Peterson (1974), now senior buyer.
Christys chief rival during most of this period was the SportStalker chain, founded by Ben Hambleton in Steamboat in 1972. Like Busch, Hambleton was committed to growth, and he built an 18-store chain spread across the mountain towns of Colorado and Utah. In 1989, Hambleton sold a majority of his holdings to a French group headed by Patrick OWinter. In 1994, Christy Sports merged with SportStalker to form the largest group of specialty wintersports stores in North America.
In recent years the company has met some critical challenges. “We now compete with the big, vertically-integrated resort companies,” notes Van Velkinburgh, now chairman of the board. “Vail Resorts and Intrawest have their own retail chains which compete with our mountain town stores.” And in the Front Range, Christy stores compete head-to-head with The Sports Authority (formerly Gart Bros.) “big box” stores.
Success in this environment depends on local knowledge and superior service, Van Velkinburgh says. “Were not a public company, so we dont have deep pockets,” he points out. “The challenge is to keep a ma-and-pa attitude in the stores. We do this by pushing decision-making making down the chain. Each store manager runs an independent operation, so each store is unique. Weve always hired expert managers and staff, and many of them have been with us for ten to 15 years, so they become a fixture in their communities. They know their customers, and they build a loyal local customer base. In every important way, each of our neighborhood stores embodies the spirit the Crists established 45 years ago in Lakewood.”
Marketing director Denny Bride himself joined the company by helping to build the Copper store in 1972. Hes quick to identify what keeps Christy managers and staff at their jobs for decades at a stretch. “Its passion for the sport,” he says. “A special connection with what you love makes all the difference.”
“We have enjoyed a very successful and exciting 45 years of growth and change,” said president/CEO Patrick OWinter. “Christy Sports is always looking to grow our business in Colorado and elsewhere, with new convenient locations, while providing only the best in quality service and products for the snow sports enthusiasts. Our summer product lines like patio furniture also continue to grow and we look forward to the next 45 years with excitement and anticipation. We would like to thank all those who have helped to make our first 45 years so special.”