A visit to Lahout's Ski Shop is an unforgettable experience. They're not your average gear retailer. Instead, this humble country store is the by-product of a fourth-generation family that's committed to getting their community on skis.
It wasn't originally in our plan to visit Lahout's Ski Shop. Our quick trip to New England was jam-packed with family and old friend catch-ups, allowing for little wiggle room for spontaneous adventures. But when the opportunity to visit North America's oldest ski shop presents itself, you don't turn it down.
It was Anthony Lahout's idea to pop by for a visit. He's one of the many owners of the shop and a proud fourth-generation Lahout. Initially, we spoke at great length about his recent film North Country with Stept Studios, which tells the story of his family's 100-year-old business. Started by two Lebanese immigrants in 1920, Lahout's was originally a humble grocery store. Through the years it’s grown into a beloved ski and outdoor gear outfitter for the Littleton and greater New England outdoor community. The film dives into the shop's timeless story while profiling the many folks who contributed to its success. The most notable character is Joe Lahout, the patriarch of the store and a 93-year-old spitfire.
After repeatedly binge-watching the 20-minute documentary and reduced to tears and sniffles by the time the credits rolled, I found myself eager to experience the shop firsthand. There had to be something special about this place if it survived the Great Depression, World War II, the Dot Com Crash, and the Great Recession. Lahouts just happened to be a short detour on our drive back home to Massachusetts, so my boyfriend and I opted for the long way home.
As we cross over the Vermont border into New Hampshire, the rugged White Mountains begin to rise over the horizon, dominating the landscape. The GPS chimes to take the next exit for Littleton, New Hampshire. It's a town you'd expect to see in a Yankee Candle catalog. Victorian houses. Covered bridges. No shortage of vibrant fall colors illuminating the landscape. After a short drive through the quaint downtown, we arrive at the Lahout's Ski Shop. Of course, it was open, as it has been for 365 days a year since 1920. The interior is a far cry from a major outdoor retailer like REI. Instead, imagine your parents living room converted into a lively gear bazaar. There are photos, trinkets, and film posters on every square inch of the walls, shelves, even obscuring the ceiling at some parts. These winter shrines pay homage to local heroes like Bode Miller and Red Sox players as well as ski legends like Doug Coombs.
Lahout's has always been a family business. Anthony—a fourth-generation Lahout—is continuing that tradition onwards. But as a kid, he didn't quite grasp the magic of it all. Instead, the younger Lahout dreamt of heading West. He never imagined the ski shop to become the center of his world, let alone the catalyst for an intense five-year filming project.
Following college, Anthony worked in financial services. From the outside looking in, he found success, but internally that wasn't the case. Dissatisfied with the direction his life was going, Anthony trusted his most reliable compass: skiing. He quit his job and spent a winter chasing powder throughout the West, ultimately discovering a passion for marketing and media. That passion led to led to a career in a more creative field, which he cultivated at Smith Optics and Spyder. He began collaborating with photographers, videographers, and athletes throughout the ski industry. As Anthony pursued this new direction in his life, he also found clarity with his past, realizing what he had back in New Hampshire’s North Country. “I think there's something special about the rich tradition that exists in New England, and New Hampshire specifically, you know, the whole ‘live free or die’ mentality. My experience in the West gave me this new perspective to appreciate how uncharted these mountains are and the tradition that goes generations back,” he says.
Anthony Lahout teamed up with award-winning director Nick Martini and cinematographer Cam Riley to captivate a nation with his family's timeless story. Topher Baldwin photo.
Before leaving, Anthony had a pretty typical relationship with his grandfather, Joe. It was what you'd expect from a grandfather: appearances at baseball games and birthday dinners. "We always got along because we had this very innate connection with skiing and the mountains," Anthony explains. "Growing up, my grandfather was like the celebrity of the store, but I didn't realize until later a lot of the bullshit that he dealt with as a kid," he says. The 60-year age gap between the two lahouts didn't help either. Joe didn't talk much about his family's struggles when his father unexpectedly died from appendicitis during the Great Depression. The tragedy launched Joe into the family business alongside his widowed mother and sisters. Adding to the stress, Joe lacked community in Littleton. He was the son of Lebanese immigrants, which didn't fit the mold of a stereotypical New Englander. These physical and cultural differences made him an outcast. It wasn't until he discovered skiing that he was able to find his place in the community. "It proved to him that he was the same, if not better, than everybody else because he could ski. I think that mentality still translates. Skiing grounds you and washes all the negativity away," Anthony explains who shares the same love for the sport. Each time Anthony came home to visit, Joe began to open up his past, deepening their relationship and leaving Anthony with more questions.
It's easy to find Joe's presence throughout the store. From his original wooden skis and leather boots to the black-white photos of him pinning it down the mountain, Joe's life is memorialized nearly everywhere you look. As we take in the history, we're guided by the store footwear manager Chad who dropped what he's doing to give us an impromptu tour. At one point, we stumble across a black bumper sticker slapped on the wall with one of Joe's iconic phrases. It read: Put the damn skis on and go like hell. Unsurprisingly the store blew through their stock of that particular bumper sticker. "Joe did a lot for this community," Chad tells us. "He loved it. He even repainted the exterior of the store to match the local high school's colors as another way to show his support."
One quick look at the messages scrawled on the store walls shows that the community not only felt Joe's support but returned it with love. "I think what the ski industry doesn't like to remember is at the very beginning it largely consisted of these Ivy league, white U.S. Ski Team athletes and brand representatives. There was this hierarchy of who could sell skis, and it had to be from these immaculate ski shops," Anthony explains. Joe's grocery store converted gear shop didn't fit that mold, and back then, he wasn't allowed to attend the Boston Ski Show and the Providence Ski Show after discounting products to make the sport more accessible."His whole goal was to make skiing affordable for kids like himself, who also came from a broken home. That way, they could get outside too and forget about things for a couple of hours," says Anthony.
Visit after visit, Anthony learned more about Joe's story, and it eventually dawned on him that the subject of his next project was sitting right in front of him. Teaming up with award-winning director Nick Martini and Stept Studios, they crafted a short film about Joe, showcasing his lovable spunk. The three-minute piece was a hit. The Telluride MountainfilmFestival scooped it up and played it before the featured films. On the heels of that success, Anthony and Nick received seed funding to make a much bigger project.
They planned to create a skiing equivalent of Dogtown and Z Boys, which explores the history of skateboarding through this lens of a group of skateboarding friends. Using their short film on Joe as the starting point, they added more voices to the narrative by interviewing a handful of icons of the sport: Bode Miller, Klaus Obermeyer, Chris Davenport, and various members of the 10th Mountain Division. With each interview, they created a pilot episode and presented the short vignette to friend and mentor Ross Kauffman, who's an Academy award-winning director. Out of everyone they profiled—Olympians to mountaineers—Kauffman kept coming back to Joe. That's your film, he'd tell them. "He just liked everything about him and his very curmudgeonly self," says Anthony. It was relatable to both skiers and non-skiers. They pivoted the narrative to focus solely on Joe, who's life coincidentally paralleled skiing's arrival to the United States.
What came next for Anthony was an intense five-year journey alongside the Stept production team, who became an adoptive family to the Lahouts. "Growing up skiing in Northern New Hampshire, I connected with that part of the country, but I had no idea how rich the history of the birthplace of skiing in America was," said director Nick Martini. He spent four years intimately capturing Joe Lahout Sr's story. For him, it was eye-opening to unravel the threads of history that wove together with this family and the sport of skiing. The filming process was the most straightforward out of anything. They filmed Joe in his apartment, living his day to day life. It was authentic, nothing staged. As for the shop itself, they let its many nooks and crannies do the talking.
In hindsight, things came full circle for Anthony. When he came home five years ago, he wanted to cultivate a deeper connection with his grandfather. And in the process, he not only gained a new perspective on his family's story but became part of the narrative himself. Now he's writing the next chapter of the shop's history. Their goal will remain as it has been: inspiring others to find the magic that exists in the mountains—just as Joe Lahout Sr. did in Remich Park on a cold winter's day.
Out of everything I saw at the shop, the thing that caught my eye the most were the wooden floors. You can feel the wood shift as you walk, occasionally creaking every step or so. They're unperfect, unpolished, and have no shortage of scuffs—likely from the thousands of shoppers they've had year after year since the ‘20s. Walking on them you get the sense of history here. It's the same feeling I get when I'm in Europe walking on cobblestone that's been around for centuries. You can't find that sensation from an online shop.
Following its 100th birthday, the Lahouts ski shop wants to continue doing what it does best: putting their community on skis. Topher Baldwin photo.
Yet, 100-year-old businesses are a rarity these days. 100-year-old ski shops are even rarer. Instead, most of us would admit to buying a pair of skis in just a few clicks without saying a single word to another human. It's the byproduct of convenience and efficiency, but have we lost something invaluable in the process? I think so. Standing in Lahout's, you can feel it. You feel the love. You feel the passion. The door is always open, no matter who you are, and it's because of folks like the Lahouts that our sport continues to flourish today.
Anthony phrased it best for me. "I think people value community at the end of the day. You can't put a price tag on that."
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