Durango has an abundance of outdoor industry businesses.
However, very few specialize in snowboarding and skateboarding alone, except for The Boarding Haus.
For owner John Agnew, it’s been a ride, whether it was operating as the general manager from 1995 to 2001, or when he took over the business in 2001. The Boarding Haus has become the premier place to purchase anything in the realm of snowboarding, skating or even BMX.
Agnew sat down with The Durango Herald to discuss how Durango has changed, the snowboarding industry and how community support has contributed to the business.
Q: What is The Boarding Haus’ history?
A: Well, it started back in 1995 or so. Snowboarding was on kind of this crazy trajectory and a newer sport at Purgatory. (Purgatory) just kind of recently allowed them to ride at the mountain without a specified lift pass.
The year before we opened, there was one snowboard shop in town, and the year we opened there were seven. It was a slog for a long time, and everybody had the same idea.
You know, it’s like snowboards are taking over the world and we started (the) snowboard shop, and it was crazy. I’d go to the trade show in (Las Vegas), and there were like 400 snowboard manufacturers.
People were making them in their garages and all these brands were coming up, and you didn’t really know who was going to be successful and who wasn’t going to be successful.
But snowboarding by nature, I guess everybody kind of wanted it to be its own entity and not lumped into the ski shop. That was the birth of The Boarding Haus.
… I was a manager at Hassle Free Sports at the time, and I approached the then-owner of Hassle Free about the idea of at least making half the store just a Snowboard Shop or maybe a stand-alone shop.
At that time, the building next door – which is the one with the Durango mural on it – became available. And I think Tommie (Peterson) had heard that some other shops were kind of sniffing around, so he had right of first refusal. So, he purchased the building, then I had approached him with the idea of separating it out, so he tapped me and was like, “Let’s go with that idea.” So, I got to start the store.
Q: What made snowboarding such popular sport during that time period? And why do you think so many people transitioned to it?
A: For me personally, I had grown up ski racing and that was the whole focus of the first half of my life was becoming an Olympian or trying to become an Olympian and get on the U.S. Ski Team.
And then, when I first jumped on a snowboard, I had shin splints really bad, so I couldn’t ski all the time. I was at this big race in Crested Butte, and it was Nationals and the race was over and my parents were going to be there for a few more days … I saw that Burton and Sims were down there doing demos, so I was like, “I’ll grab a snowboard.” I grabbed a snowboard, ran up the hill, figured that I could get down the mountain and got on the lift with them and spent the next three days just laughing my way down the mountain.
It was so fun. It was just play versus just the normal cruising blue runs and stuff. It seemed like you could have a lot more fun on less terrain (on a snowboard) … It became just really joyful, so that’s what did it for me. It was just something different.
I had grown up skiing my whole life and something about riding sideways and surfing the mountain, there’s just something to it that spoke to me and I think did for a lot of people.
Q: What do you attribute the success and longevity of this business to?
A: Hard work. You know, putting in ridiculous hours.
I remember years where I was we would be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. But that meant, I come in half an hour early and leave sometimes an hour late. I was putting in 12- to 13-hour days.
Q: Was that just about dealing with inventory, or something else?
A: Covering costs and making sure that everything was done, and I think just really trying to do a great job.
I think there’s probably a lot of factors that go into our success, and my employees without question deserve a huge amount of the reason for the success. I’ve had so many great employees through the years.
I ended up buying the store in 2001. I was the general manager up until that point, and we’re starting to see some of the other shops disappear. But at that point, I was just like, “Gosh, you know, I’m working so hard if I’m either going to own it or I’m gone.”
So, I pitched the sale to the original owner and he was ready at that point because it was a slog. Like I said, so many different shops, were just duking it out and everybody was trying to get the best brands, and he was just kind of getting ready to retire.
So, I think the employees are a huge reason of our success. Just great people and kids that grew up here having a passion for the business and the sport. I think it’s absolutely important.
If you don’t love what you're doing, if you don’t love what you’re selling, it’s hard to get other people to love it as well.
Q: You’ve been in downtown for a long time. How much have you seen Durango change over that period?
A: Quite a bit. You know, from the fairgrounds being across the street from us before. We had that long brick wall. You probably never saw it. But it was sandstone. It looked like a prison yard wall that was several blocks long, right across the street from us.
So, seeing that come down and just the noise that reverberated off it from the traffic and everything, I think kind of helped revitalize some of the North Main (Avenue) area and just made it a lot more beautiful …
With all the changes it still feels a lot like the same Durango that I grew up in as a kid. My family used to own the lodge at Purgatory when I was in elementary school … We were the first on the bus to ride down the Needham Elementary and then the very last to get off the bus.
Q: With you being a longtime business owner, How do you kind of feel about big chain stores like REI coming into Durango?
A: I’m not really excited about it. I feel like it’s just more of what changes Durango away from what I think everybody loves about this place.
If you come to a town, and it’s just like the last town that you were in; they’ve all got the same REI and Home Depot and Target and Applebee’s, all of the same things. I think it just loses some of the soul and the character of what made the town really cool.
… I know a lot of business owners in town from just having been in business forever. I love the fact that we have all of these, like, really locally developed great businesses, and it’s a shame to see them kind of disappear.
I think that everybody here, like me, is in it for the passion of it. It’s just very organic as far as, you know, how they came up and how they try to treat people and hopefully, a lot of us will survive, but it definitely just kind of just pulls the soul out of a town when you just replace all the mom and pops with big nationwide companies.
Q: What motivates you to keep you going with the business?
A: Well, I really love the fact that … the summer is so different (from) the winter. We’re (selling) skateboards and clothing in the summer, and it’s a little bit more laid back. It’s a little bit more chill. I love skateboarding, so I still have a passion for that.
But when snowboarding comes around and I’m fired up, I’m ready to ride and I love the gear. Yeah, and the employees too … I only hire snowboarders and I catch some flack for that, but it’s hard to have a passion about what we do.
If you do something that’s just a little different, but not the same, it’s hard, I think, to really know from your soul, what it is to be a snowboarder and what kind of passion you have for it because it’s a special thing … It’s mind-blowing on what you’re capable of doing, you know, and how playful they can be. And you know, how you can ride these mountains?
It’s like having superhuman ability … All of a sudden, you can fly down the mountain faster than animals can run. You can play off rollers and different shapes of the terrain, and you’re just on this little piece of wood that flexes and bends and it’s just pretty awesome.
Q: What has been the most challenging part of owning the business?
A: Managing people, staying ahead of trends and lulls in the business, whether it’s things that you can’t control like snow, tourism and disease, (such as) COVID. But yeah, just being able to move with the times.
Q: Do new trends severely impact business?
A: I wouldn’t say trends as much but just trying to make the right choices with the products that you buy.
The better I do my job, the better the store is going to do. It’s taken many years to develop the store into what it is now … I think we have the absolute best (brands) in the business, and I love that.