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Ski shops busy selling, renting during the pandemic

The usually crowded snow sports clothing racks at Rogue Ski Shop have gaps this year, and a few weeks ago a goggle display case was empty as people seeking outdoor recreation during the pandemic have snapped up gear to get away from indoor confinement.

Like Rogue Ski Shop, the ski shop Blackbird Shopping Center, which rents and sells ski equipment, is seeing busy days and low inventory as skiers and snowboarders go to Mount Ashland, Mount Shasta or seek backcountry escapes.

“The rental side has been very busy,” said Justin Schwarz at Blackbird. “It’s probably been the most popular year for people going up to learn. There’s a lot of families. Definitely, a lot of kids. There are a lot of seniors out there, a lot more than I expected to ski.”

Parents have been seeking outlets to get kids away from computers and electronic devices that they use for both learning and entertainment during the pandemic.

“We have them come and say, ‘I’ve got to get the kids off the video. This is outside, this will be our PE class,’” said Bob Matthews of Rogue Ski Shop. “The kids are watching screens far more than families want.”

With uncertainty over whether ski areas would reopen for the 2020-21 season, backcountry touring and cross-country skiing were seen early on as something for winter sports enthusiasts regardless of what happened at the ski areas.

“It was clear that backcountry, alpine touring equipment was a segment that people wanted a lot, and also cross-country and snowshoes. We were running out as far as restocking,” said Matthews. All of his cross-county gear was gone by Thanksgiving, and the few snowshoes he carried also disappeared.

Small, used skis for kids and the first pair of skis for beginners have been popular sellers, said Matthews. Those skiers don’t want to spend $1,000 or more for higher-end setups of boots, skis and poles, but will spend $400 to $500, only slightly more than the cost of 10 rentals at Mt. Ashland or Mt. Shasta ski areas.

Used skis in the $200 to $300 range were gone almost immediately, he said. Neither of the two annual Rogue Valley ski swap meets, where people can pick up used gear, were held in the fall.

Part of the clothing rack gaps can be attributed to suppliers who cut back on the amount of gear they produced, uncertain of what sort of market would exist. North Face cut back its production by 70%, said Matthews. A number of other suppliers also cut back on deliveries to the shop.

“In a good year we have been able to fill (the shop) up again. We’re having a good year, but it’s not the same as having a normal economy,” said Matthews.

What hasn’t sold are travel roller bags used for transporting skis and snowboards on planes. People are staying closer to home, going to Mt. Ashland, Mt. Shasta and Mt. Bachelor, Matthews said.

Most of the inventory remaining at Blackbird is either in the extra small or extremely large categories, said Schwarz, with more common sizes long gone.

Blackbird rents skis, snowboards, snowshoes, backcountry gear and cross-country gear. Rogue Ski Shop does not do rentals. REI’s Medford store rents snowshoes. On many weekends Blackbird has rented all the toddler-sized snowboards used by kids 2 years old and up.

On the service side, Schwarz said, the shop is doing more work than normal. He is seeing folks coming in with older snowboards with rusting edges for tune ups, getting back into snow sports after a hiatus. He estimates some of the boards hadn’t seen the light of day for 10 years when they came out of garages.

Everything is getting rented, said Schwarz. Backcountry rental gear has always been popular, because people like to get out in the woods to get lost, he said.

Rogue and Blackbird have collaborated on getting backcountry gear setups together for adventurers, said Schwarz. Rogue had the specialized bindings required, while Blackbird had the skis and boots, which are lighter than downhill gear.

The year has also brought changes to how the resorts operate. There are no after-school programs or night skiing at Mt. Ashland this season. All rentals and lessons there are purchased online.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Rogue Ski Shop owner Bob Mathews helps Tracy Camp of Ashland with ski and binding settings at the Medford snow sport store Saturday.