American Ski Exchange celebrates 25 years in business
VAIL, Colorado – This is Vail, so Tom and Jackie Higgins’ story will sound familiar: Northern boy meets Southern girl in Colorado, where they stay and start a successful business.
The Higginses own American Ski Exchange on Wall Street in Vail Village and have since 1986. The store has expanded a few times over the years, but the front door today is in the same place it was back when Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
The store is packed with skis and snowboards for rent and sale, along with gear from gloves to helmets to T-shirts. And even on a quiet Thursday morning, people wandered in and out of the store, browsing.
The store’s not particularly big, but it started off quite a bit smaller. Over the years, American Ski Exchange has expanded into two other storefronts in the Wall Street building. But the Higgins family started small, too.
Oldest son Blake had just been born – and Tom and Jackie had only been married a few years – when they started the store.
Tom, originally from Minnesota, had come to Colorado in the 1970s to attend the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
“I just didn’t want to be the last one out of Duluth,” he said.
But Tom loved the mountains, and it wasn’t long before he found himself in Vail in the early 1980s, where he and his family had spent a few Christmas vacations in years past. Jackie, a University of Georgia graduate, had worked a few summers at Rocky Mountain National Park, which sparked her love affair with the state.
The couple met when one of Jackie’s friends married one of Tom’s friends in the national park.
“I thought he talked funny,” Jackie said, while Tom quickly added that he’d always tried to avoid Southern girls.
But the two quickly sparked up a romance. Jackie left her newspaper job in Birmingham, Ala., and applied for a job at The Vail Trail. She was hired, and soon moved to Colorado.
In 1986, the Higginses and partner Joe Tonahill started the ski shop, and the store’s been busy ever since.
Vail has changed a lot over the past quarter-century, and so has the ski business.
Asked what they thought the most significant change in the industry has been, Jackie thought a moment before pointing to the increased use of helmets.
“It’s like wearing seat belts was in the ’80s,” she said. “You’re just seeing a lot more use today.”
For Tom, the biggest change in the business didn’t require even a moment’s thought.
“The snowboard industry has revitalized the ski business,” he said. From shaped skis to the new “rocker” skis to the excitement of the terrain parks, and the greater success rate for beginners, snowboards have re-molded virtually everything about snowsports, he added.
Snowboards weren’t even a niche item when American Ski Exchange started. These days, they account for perhaps 20 percent of the store’s business, and Tom guessed that a third or more of everyone on Vail Mountain is on one board.
“But a lot of us still don’t give snowboards the time of day,” he said. “I don’t get it.”
Beyond keeping up with the changes in the business, the Higginses also have to keep their mom-and-pop shop relevant in a world increasingly dominated by bigger companies.
“We look for stuff everybody else doesn’t have,” Jackie said. That takes a keen eye at the shows, and everyone at the store gets a say.
“If we don’t think it’s right for us, we don’t get it,” Jackie said.
That search for different items, as well as familiar faces, keeps a lot of customers coming back year after year.
“We’ve seen a lot of people grow up and have kids of their own,” Tom said.
After 25 years in the business, the Higginses are now looking at bringing their own next generation into the family business. All four of the Higgins kids have worked in the store for years. Now, with all four in college, Tom and Jackie believe that one or two of their kids may come back to keep the store going in the years to come. But Tom and Jackie aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
“We love Vail,” Jackie said. “It’s a great place to live, to work and to raise a family.”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or email@example.com.