Pete's Ski & Sport Shop on track to close

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WALLA WALLA -- Pete's Ski & Sport Shop, one of the oldest ski shops in the state, is on a course for closure.

The 65-year-old retail shop will close its Main Street doors in the coming weeks after the lagging economy put sales in a deep freeze, said owner Hal White.

He said more customers have turned to the Internet for their ski and sport needs. Many, affected by the recession, are pulling back spending completely.

"The ski industry as a whole has been hurt," White said this morning. "Our own suppliers have become our competitors because they've started to sell direct."

The future for Pete's seemed even more unclear when it had appeared Ski Bluewood might be closed this winter. The longtime owners of the ski resort announced plans last spring to retire. For the last several months, a search has been under way for new operators.

White said the decision to close Pete's was made before new owners for Ski Bluewood emerged earlier this month. "Now that it's going to be open, it's sad," he said. "Unfortunately, we didn't have as much local support as we needed to stay."

He said the store at 124 E. Main St. will operate indefinitely until the inventory can be cleared out.

White plans to carry on the Pete's name in a ski tuneup operation he will open at his own garage. He will also continue in his family's farm operation, as Bluewood's Alpine Race Team coach and on the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation board.

He said this morning that Pete's Manager Steve Leitner has accepted a management position at Ski Bluewood, where he will oversee the ticket desk, information desk and retail operation. Leitner is also expected to help with White's tuneup operation.

The closure of Pete's brings an end to a more than six-decade history in Walla Walla.

According to background on the Pete's website, the operation started in 1945 by Pete Eyraud in his uncle's shoe store. It primarily served as a ski boot business. During the Christmas season five years later, Eyraud moved into his own storefront in the Coopland Building at 36 S. Colville St. White said Eyraud became partners in the business with Mel Haas, a Walla Walla resident who perhaps longer than any owner in the business is most associated with Pete's by longtime local residents.

Haas continued to operate the shop after Eyraud died in 1983. Four years later, he sold the business to Patricia and her son Jim Sanders. They moved the store to its current Main Street location in 1990 and operated their until 2007, when the business was sold to Hal and Jani White.

The purchase was a homecoming of sorts for the Whites, who had attended Walla Walla High School together, began dating in college, married, pursued work in the ski industry in Sun Valley, Idaho, and returned to the area to operate their own shop together. Their kids, both members of Bluewood's racing team, were fixtures at the store, as well.

Nevertheless, the last two years in business have been rocky with the recession and the changing climate in the ski industry as a whole, White said.

"Last year I mounted more skis bought off the Internet than I sold off my wall," he said.

Sales last August were worse than the first August under his ownership when he had just a third of the inventory.

"I kind of saw that as an image of the future," he said.

He said he and his family will miss the familiar faces of loyal shoppers who came into the store. He's also proud of the service that's been provided at the business over the years.

Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini said the store will be missed. He hopes another retail shop will be able to step in. The 28 or so downtown tasting rooms have added to the ambiance of the shopping corridor, he said. But a strong mix of retail is vital to attract local residents.

And if retail does come, White hopes local shoppers will be supportive.

"If you want these businesses in town and you want to be able to get the personal service, it's imperative that everyone does try and go in," he said.

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