By Warren MillerIt is almost that time of the year when Orion will begin to appear in the eastern sky. It is a time when anyone who owns a pair of skis or a snowboard will start watching the weather map to see if a storm is rolling out of Alaska and will miraculously cover our playground with snow. Anyone who is a hard-core skier or snowboarder will be wasting half an hour of every day at work to check the forecast on the Internet.
Unfortunately, reality puts the day that the snow should or will arrive a long way off. December 21st is the first official day of winter, so why expect the snows to come any sooner? We want those snowflakes to start falling as soon as Labor Day has come and gone. In keeping with the changing of seasons, we have put away our golf clubs, mountain bikes, water skis and other assorted pieces of summer equipment. We have just survived yet another round of Labor Day sales and we are ready to move on to the next season.
Discount ski sales have been around for a long time. In 1955, to kick off the ski season, Scott Osborn of the Osborn and Ulland Ski Shop in Seattle, wanted to get rid of a lot of worthless junk that hadn’t sold during the last five seasons. So, he held the world’s first discount ski sale. He called it Bargains spelled backwards, or Sniagrab, as it has come to be known. Half a dozen other ski shops have claimed to have invented the word, but because I was there at the time, I still give Scott credit for the idea.
To stimulate his pre-season Sniagrab sale, Scott advertised Head Skis for $5 a pair when they were selling for $85, three times the amount of any other ski on the market. Scott had gone to Portland and paid full retail price for two pairs of Head skis and had hidden them way in the back of the store. The line outside of his store began the afternoon before the sale and there was a near riot among the first several people, who had slept all night on the cold Seattle sidewalk to get their hands on those $5 Head skis.
Two sleepy young men got the bargain of the century and that $5 purchase messed up the rest of their lives. They both became ski instructors and dropped out of the University of Washington. After three years of teaching skiing locally, they were good enough to get jobs at Sun Valley. Then, every spring when the snow melted, they picked up their hammers and saws and framed houses. They had bought a lifetime of freedom with a five-dollar bill.
Long before Scott’s big sale, I had figured out that there was a demand for old skis. In the fall of 1946, Army surplus skis with bindings were selling for $7 a pair and ski poles were $1 a pair. During a sale, I bought eight pairs of them for $2 a pair. I realized that I could make 25% on my money by re-selling them.
My first customer was an old surfing buddy who I had convinced to take up skiing. He was about 5 foot 3 inches tall and he thought my 7-foot-6-inch skis were a little too long for him.
Never one to give up on a sale, I solved his problem by sawing the last 10 inches off of the tails of the skis, sanding them down and painting them white. This was after I had dazzled him with a story about the physics of skiing and why a binding should be that far back on a pair of skis. “The tips will float in the powder snow and the heels will sink so you can slow down while you are turning.”
I even gave him a 50-percent discount on a pair of poles. My net profit on the two-hour transaction was $1.50, but that was enough to cover the cost of a one-day rope-tow ticket and the gas to get to the local mountains.
Every year since 1937, I have looked forward to cold nights and early mornings for that I-can-see-my-breath-in-the-air feeling. Somehow it comforts me to know that there just has to be some snow somewhere in the mountains within a 10-hour drive. Though the snow doesn’t really fly until December, to me it feels as if the season begins as soon as the stores begin stacking last year’s skis outside for their Labor Day sales.
The Labor Day weekend sales have come and gone, but you can probably still get 50 percent off of last year’s merchandise, which is really this year’s merchandise with last year’s cosmetics on it. Then, wearing all of your new discount ski stuff, you can stand in your living room in your ski boots, skis, and long underwear doing deep knee bends while watching Tiger Woods drive a golf ball 384 yards. After all, the golf courses are still open.