‘It’s been quite a ride,’ After four decades, Sportshaus to close as owners retire

TIME GOES BY SO FAST were the thoughts of Marlise and Phil Libby of Bridgton as they reflected upon opening Sportshaus back in 1979, and their picture appeared on Page 1 of The News (top). The couple plan to retire this April, and close the popular ski & sport shop in West Bridgton.

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

For over four decades, Marlise and Phil Libby have provided area residents and others from points near and far outlets to enjoy the great outdoors — be it cruising down the mountainside as crisp winter air bites at one’s cheeks or slowly paddling across the still lake as a loon cries out.

“We are why you work,” Marlise said.

“We sell sizzle,” Phil added. “Nobody needs anything we sell in this store. We’re selling fun. We’re selling them an experience.”

As owners of Sportshaus in West Bridgton, the couple dedicated their working lives to helping others find fun in their free time.

In April, they will close the store, retire and look to have a little more fun like everyone else.

“We got to the point where we looked at our ages and wondered how many good years do we have left?  We love the business, but it is a seven days a week commitment. We’ve done it for a long time, and it’s been very successful,” they said. “Our people have been phenomenal. They’ve done all of the heavy lifting for the past 10 years. But, at some point in time, it’s time to move on. It’s been a good ride.”

The Libbys looked at options and, in the end, “it came down to we own the building, we own the inventory. If we liquidate the inventory — that’s where all the value is — and sell the building, it’s the easiest and quickest way to do it. I’ve had friends try to sell a business, and it could take two to four years. We don’t want to wait,” Phil said.

“We didn’t want to wait until after the ski season, and then what? With no skiers, then you have to wait another whole year,” Marlise added.

School vacation week is one of the shop’s busiest times of the year, and the “retirement sale” lured more shoppers to the West Bridgton store.

The Libbys plan to keep Bridgton their home, but will certainly spend time in Florida, as well visiting their daughter, Jill, who resides in Massachusetts.

“I love to ski and play golf,” Phil said. “Marlise and I love to be on our boat in the summer with our grandson. We’ve never spent Christmas anywhere else but our house for 40 years. Everybody had to come to us. We still like that, but we’d like the option that if our daughter would like us in Boston, we can go without worry. It’s time. Neither of us had a burning desire that the Sportshaus name had to stay out there. If might. I’ve been amazed that in the eight to 10 days that we’ve been running this ‘Retirement Sale,’ I’ve fielded six different phone calls and met with three people who are interested in taking over the business if we sell the inventory.”

“We’re established. We have loyal clientele,” Marlise said.

“One of the most gratifying things during this sale has been the number of people on the floor who want to shake your hand and say, ‘Gee, we’re going to miss you. We’ve been customers for 20 years.’ And, thank you,” Phil added. “We have a great mix — a really good local clientele and a second-home clientele. We’re now selling skis to their kids’ kids,” Phil said. “We owe our success to two groups — we’ve had amazing, loyal employees over the years and incredible customers, including those out-of-state who don’t buy their equipment back home, they wait until they come here. They do it because of the staff. The Fox (Brian at 36 years) and Hendricks (Bev over 20 years) families have probably got over 100 years combined working here.”

“Brian told someone that whoever buys or leases the building that he comes with the building,” Marlise joked.

The Libbys feel confident that the building will likely continue its history as a ski shop, and they suspect it won’t take long before new owners take control.

“It’s a golden opportunity for someone,” Marlise said. “It’s a very viable business with a loyal clientele.”

“And, the mountain isn’t going away,” Phil added.

Good career decision

The Libbys purchased the business from Mo and Heddi Needham in April 1979, and the sale was featured on Page 1 of The News, as part of a local business roundup.

The move was a “homecoming of sorts for Phil,” the article said. Phil’s father, Dick, purchased a home in South Bridgton in 1970. After being married for three years, Phil and Marlise followed and dove into the retail business for the first time.

Prior, Phil was a manager for a trucking company in New York, while Marlise was an international manager of an air freight company operating out of Kennedy International Airport.

“It’s been a great run,” Phil said as Sportshaus reached four decades of sales and service.

Looking back, the Libbys are proud of how they built the business into a success.

“We’re also proud that we’ve employed a lot of kids over the years, many good, amazing kids,” Phil said. “We gave them a start, their first job.”

Like any business, the Libbys faced plenty of challenges — the biggest, surviving the “no snow winters.”

“We’re like farmers. We watch the 6 o’clock weather report and hope and pray that you get snow. You have no control over it, but the lack of snow can cut your business up to 80% in a year,” the Libbys said. “Our first year, Pleasant Mountain was open seven days. There was no snowmaking back then. The second year, the mountain was open a total of 21 days.”

They managed, however, to ride out those snowless seasons.

“We certainly wondered about our decisions to leave good corporate jobs for this?” Marlise recalled.

The ski industry got a boost when the governor declared a no snow emergency, and the Small Business Administration stepped in to offer snow-related business guaranteed loans. Resorts used funding to install snowmaking, while shop owners like the Libbys secured money to keep their operations afloat.

“We were the first business in the State of Maine to get our loan approved,” Phil said. “It kept us afloat.”

While snowmaking was a godsend, another challenge was to convince out-of-state skiers that trail conditions were worth the trip when they look outside and see brown grass and no snow.

“We even get calls from the Portland market asking if we have snow and if the conditions are good here? If it rains down there and it snows here, they only remember the rain,” Phil said. “It’s the business. That’s what we do, we deal with the weather.”

Over four decades, the Libbys have experienced many changes within the industry and retail sales. Fads — like windsails and rollerblades — come and go. They figured how to best stock the latest craze, yet not overextend and be left holding on to items the public no longer had interest in. When they purchased the business, the skiing “boom” was nearing its end, but they knew skiing was a sport that can take a lifetime to perfect one’s skills.

“Skiing was the ‘in’ sport. Since the ’90s, the sport has grown 1 to 2 percent. It’s been steady, not in decline,” Phil said. “When snowboards hit, a lot of kids went in that direction because there were things they could do that they couldn’t do on skis. Over the last 10 years, changes in these parabolic side-cut skis have made it a lot easier to use and learn, so kids are going to them because there are things they can do on these skis that they can’t do on snowboards.”

To keep up with new technology, the Libbys attended national ski shows each year — initially in Las Vegas, now in Denver. Those trips brought a chance to learn, shop and connect. They belonged to a “cooperative” that includes 65 companies, which gives them strong buying power (especially for a store of Sportshaus’ size) and rubbing elbows with some of the sport’s biggest retailers.

“I’ve learned just about everything about the ski business from people in this group. Marlise sat on the board for seven to eight years. It was a great resource and a great way to keep up with what’s going on in the industry,” Phil said. “The networking with that group remains phenomenal to this day.”

Retail, as a whole, has changed dramatically the past few years because of the internet. The Libbys have seen “big box” ski stores come and go over the years by sticking with their plan — quality products and customer service. The Libbys consider themselves, “the survivors.”

“The ski industry, we feel, has a little edge over the internet because it is so specialized and we offer expertise. Yes, there are a lot of internet sales, but in any year, 50 to 70% of the skis we sell people demo them first. These skis all ski differently. If you are going to drop hundreds of dollars on skis, you want to try them out. If they like them, they come back and buy them,” Phil said. “Same with boots. They better feel right.”

The Libbys will remain in the ski business for at least another year. They operate the 600-square-foot ski accessory store inside Shawnee Peak, and hold the lease for that space for one more season. Brenda Doucette has managed the store for the Libbys for the past three years, and will run it again next season.

“We’ll see after that if we want to continue to do it,” Marlise said. “It’s not as big a commitment like this place.”

Previously, the Libbys ran a ski shop in the base lodge at Mt. Abram for 10 years before their lease ran out last season. Between the three stores, the Libbys employed 20-plus people.

With the leases at Mt. Abram and Shawnee Peak coming to an end, the Libbys gave serious thought that the time was right to retire.

When Sportshaus closes in April, the Libbys will miss people, whom they’ve shared lots of time with over the years in the store.

“Both staff and customers,” they said. “It’s all about the people. It’s a social business. You’re not a cashier. You sell them something, and you want them to love it so they come back again. We’ve did it right, and people kept coming back.”

When asked if the couple had any regrets, they both quickly answered, “No.”

Sportshaus will always be a great accomplishment and memory for the Libbys, even if it did test their patience as husband and wife working side-by-side for 40 years.

How did they do it?

“Separate vacations,” Phil said. “It’s definitely different. It’s certainly not easy. But, it can be incredibly rewarding.”

For the first eight years, the couple lived in an apartment space above the Main Street store location.

“We never left work,” Phil said.

“Let me tell you, there have been some rough spots,” Marlise answered. “The business has been our life. You eat, sleep and drink the business. You’re that invested.” 

Looking back, the Libbys both agreed they made the right choice buying the ski shop business back in April 1979.

“I’ve spent my entire life playing games,” Phil said. “My wife tells me I was a ski bum who figured out a way to make a living while still playing.”

Sportshaus Route 302, West Bridgton Tel: 647-5100 Weekdays: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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