Things I’ve Learned: 93-year-old Joe Lahout, Owner of America’s Oldest Ski Shop
Lahout’s Country Clothing and Ski Shop is located in a two-story building in Littleton, New Hampshire. The iconic retail store serves as the birthplace, home and place of work to 93-year-old Joe Lahout Sr., and its walls have happily welcomed skiers of all abilities since 1920. Over the years, Lahout’s has witnessed and sold nearly a century’s worth of ski products and has hosted ski legends such as Diann Roffe and Bode Miller to roam the floor, and of course, sign the wall of fame.
Since the early days of Lahout’s, not much has changed. Alongside a bleeding passion for skiing, customer service remains the top priority. Now with multiple locations across New England, the brand continues in the Lahout family, with Joe’s children and grandchildren at the helm.
This summer, Nick Martini and the Stept Productions crew traveled to the heart of the White Mountains to get to know Joe Lahout Sr. and his family, and capture their unique story. Below, you’ll find the finished product, as well as a Thing’s I’ve Learned piece featuring words from none other than the boss himself. Even after 93 years, Joe’s fire for skiing is stronger than ever before. Enjoy his incredible story and be sure to stop in at Lahout’s to say hello the next time you find yourself in New Hampshire.
Joe Lahout says…
To me, Lahout’s is a country store that has everything. It is a family. It is skiing.
My fondest ski memory of the shop relates to Christmas time. I used to invite several families in need each year over to my house for a night of food and discounted shopping. We would start in my apartment with an Arabic meal with my wife Lorretta and my four children, Joe Jr., Ron, Nina and Herb. Afterward, I would bring them downstairs for some beer and cheese, and we would have everyone put their name into a hat. Late into the night we would pick a name and that family would walk away with a full winter setup for their family for free.
Customer service is a priority. First, greet a customer. Make them feel warm, relaxed and welcomed. Ask them how the skiing was? Or the hiking? Or the mountains? They should feel at home. Second, create a bond. A relationship should be built on shared interests and the outdoors, as well as keeping up with their family. You can shop anywhere, especially these days. Genuine friendships are hard to come by.
The people that shop at Lahout’s are working class or outdoorsman. Blue collar people that use their hands for a living. Carpenters, welders, firemen. Those that are exposed to weather on a daily basis. The second group would be athletes. Those that have an innate passion for the outdoors. Racers to backcountry skiers. Hikers to rock climbers. Those that would give everything for another hour in the woods.
The best thing about skiing/my favorite kind of ski day is spending a couple hours out at Cannon in the weather, skiing hard. Chasing friends all over the hill. Getting off the mountain and working the rest of the day at the shop with family, friends, and customers. Sharing laughs, talking about the day and planning our next turns.
Being America’s Oldest Ski Shop is hard to think about. We did the best we could to help people and make a living. Dammit, when you think back 80-90 years, we were working to survive. My family stayed together because of the store, the store stayed together because of my family. When the big box stores came in, a lot of the small ones modernized. I couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t last. So I decided to keep everything as is. The door, the floors, the register—everything the same. We never had the best tuning machine or fanciest equipment, but we were good to people. We helped them any way we could and created lasting friendships with their families.
The biggest challenge was when my father suddenly died of appendicitis when I was 12 years-old. He was never home. My only memories of him are being away for months at a time pedaling goods on a horse and wagon. When he was around, he was a disciplinarian. I barely knew him, but was terrified of the guy. Growing up in a broken home in the 1930s wasn’t easy, especially when you had a store to run. I was conscious of it as a kid. I knew it was up to me. I came back home after World War II to keep my family together. It wasn’t like I didn’t dream of going west to explore the massive mountain ranges, I just only saw one choice.
The rewards, though, are that I’ve lived a good life. A clean life. My family made the best with what we had. Gladys, my sister, and I kept it loose. If you were around, you worked. If you wanted to ski, you skied. Not many people can say they were able to sneak out to the mountains every day for a few hours and get back before the rush. I got to work for years with my boys when they came home, and visited Herb in Austria every winter. How could I complain?
One specific product launch that comes to mind is when Kneissl came out with steel edges that ran the entire length of the ski. There had only been a few people to try edges but none that ran the full length. It changed everything. I grew up with two wooden planks without edges or bindings; I fastened them to my feet with garage rubber bands. The edge allowed you to ski ice, powder, or on piste without losing traction. They made you fearless.
Something I’m immensely proud of is progressing alpine and nordic skiing in the area, specifically to children. After the sport exploded, it was not affordable and it became my mission to make it accessible to kids. It nearly cost me my business; vendors did not support the lower price. They labeled me a ‘discounter’. They started locking me out of the local ski workshops before I arrived. It was worth the sacrifice. Seeing locals involved and developing a passion for skiing put a smile on my face. Outfitting the children of the North Country was the end goal. I wanted it to become a sport they carried with them for the rest of their lives.
Something I perhaps would have done differently is coming home directly after the war and never looking around. I felt that it was my responsibility to keep my family together. I always wanted to get to Sun Valley and ski in the west. I always thought I was too busy during the winter to ever take a ski vacation, and didn’t take one until retirement. The store was only closed on Christmas morning, we were open on all other holidays until about 8pm. Back in the 40s and 50s, all my customers would come in and rave about Sun Valley. The pitch, the community, it was a European resort in Idaho. I read a lot about Stein Eriksen and was fascinated with what he was doing in the area.
The best part about skiing is the speed and the turning. Following a friend, or them following you. Skiing made the toughest days enjoyable. Just being out there, I felt free. Nothing held me back.
Getting more people to the ski hill comes from making it affordable. I understand the big brands have to be competitive, but they should make discounted lines that get all income levels involved. Not just skis, but boots, clothing, accessories. With the price of lodging, food, lift tickets today, I would have never even been exposed to the sport.
I never skied anywhere other then Cannon until my late-sixties. My son, Herb, got a free trip to Austria and ended up in St. Anton by mistake. He moved there for the winter and still does today. The terrain, the Alps, the après ski, it was so far ahead of anything I’d ever seen. The Austrians built their life around skiing. I went to St. Anton every season to visit Herb well through my eighties. I had never skied in sunshine like that. The trails were immaculate.
The future of skiing will be for the rich if changes aren’t made. Eventually, they will be the ones that will be buying the clothing, equipment, and transportation. I never would have learned or found the love for skiing if I grew up in this generation.