I was an experiment.
Clay Freeman, Salomon’s Western Sales Manager, and Tom Corlett, the Colorado Front Range rep who would soon assume Freeman’s mantle, met me in the United Airlines lounge at Stapleton Airport to offer the newly created position of Service Representative. I was hired, at the princely sum of $9600 per annum, to support three sales territories by performing all their binding certification clinics, thereby freeing the associated salesmen to extract yet another round of orders from Salomon’s vast dealer network.
In those sepia-tinged days, binding certification took four hours, including a written exam and lab session. I presented around 57 such seminars the first year, in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. When I wasn’t doing daylong, back-to-back training sessions, I was expected to pop in on unsuspecting dealers and perform shop inspections, to be sure standards were being maintained. It turned out this, too, was experimental, as I was the only rep in the country to ever perform a single shop inspection, much less inform an established retailer that he had failed and was no longer certified.
Jackson circa 1983 at Salomon’s Peabody, MA offices. The occasion was a bon voyage party for field force and management on their way to France for factory visits. On this trip we first saw the SX91, destined to become the most influential boot design of its era.
And so it was that in the late fall of 1979 I found myself standing inside the doorway of Zermatt Haus, in a banlieue of Salt Lake City, staring at an archival ski poster that was so sun faded it was as if someone had only colored one corner of it. No one appeared to greet me, so I sauntered up the nearby staircase to the second floor.
Somewhere on that stairwell, I passed through an invisible membrane and into The Twilight Zone of shop visits. Most ski shops are so overstuffed with merchandise it’s hard to identify an aisle, but Zermatt Haus looked like it had been evacuated by a bomb scare several years earlier and never repopulated. The sweaters on hangers had dust epaulettes draping their shoulders; I feared to pick up the folded ones lest they disintegrate under my touch.
I was contemplating the waves of dead flies littering the window sills and wondering if they had gone mad trying to escape this asylum when the proprietor, Rudy Spitz, suddenly popped into the room. Short, slight and slightly suspicious of me, Rudy immediately warmed up when he learned I was from Salomon. Rudy excitedly related how he and Georges Salomon became great pals when the Salomon patriarch had visited his shop in the early 1970’s.
Now that we were buddies, Rudy couldn’t wait to demonstrate the cutting-edge marketing that was synonymous with Zermatt Haus. First stop was the Rudy Spitz Ski School, which I hadn’t noticed was on the floor right next to me. Arrayed on the ground at the head of a phalanx of folding chairs was the top of a clock dial, designated by the numbers 9 through 3 on squares of cardboard.
Rudy walked to the head of this arrangement and revealed to me the secrets of the Rudy Spitz Ski School. He stood on what was clearly the Maestro’s cardboard square and demonstrated.
“You see?” he said in his heavily accented English. “I stand here and I show them how it’s done!” He assumed a crouch, with bent elbows and knees and began to swivel his cardboard 90 degrees to the left and 90 degrees to the right. He lit up as if the room were once again full of eager students. “I have taught thousands of people to ski, right here!” he exulted.
I thought to myself, I’ve found the weak link in our system, the leak through all our promotional air has escaped. No wonder our sport can’t hold onto new recruits. One session with Rudy and you’ll decide to hibernate the entire winter and may not come out in spring.
My reverie was interrupted by Rudy tugging me by the sleeve. Time to see the workshop! I can’t wait. We descend two floors, in the process activating the Zermatt Haus time shift.
Sure enough, Rudy’s shop was caught in a time warp in which every Salomon binding he owned had ceased to be indemnified as soon as we had a list we could drop them from. Rudy was baffled how dealers were selling new bindings for less than what he had paid for his during the Nixon administration. I muttered something to the effect that life was, indeed, a mystery.
Our mood was somber as we trudged back up to the first floor, when doors connecting the shop to the Spitz living quarters practically burst off their hinges, battered out of the way by Beth Spitz, Rudy’s wife. Following a code that must be buried deep within the pineal gland, Rudy’s mate was at least twice his size and looked capable of absorbing his entire body should he stray too close.
I believe Beth was intent upon offering refreshments when angels intervened in the guise of a young couple who had quietly entered the vestibule, eyes bright with a mix of enthusiasm and perplexity. I imagined they were answering an ad for the Rudy Spitz Ski School.
We’ll never know exactly what they wanted as Rudy decided he needed a photograph to document this historic occasion almost as much as Beth needed refreshments. From somewhere the rudiments of a camera – one notch above the disposable kind – was procured and thrust into the hands of the startled young wife with instructions to take a photo of the group, then pass the camera long to the next person who would do the same, etc. The ideal vantage point turned out to be from the middle of the street in front of the shop.
This made as much sense as anything that had happened in the last hour. The camera and its various subjects were in mid-rotation when the young husband and I ended up in the middle of the street.
He leaned into me and, as if we were co-conspirators, asked if any of this were normal. I reassured him that everything was as weird as it could possibly be, and that if he valued his future life he should bolt while I created a distraction.
I think all I did was remind Beth about some promise of cookies and the spell of impromptu photography was broken. The couple dashed for their car, Beth beelined for the cookie jar and Rudy reminded me to tell Georges hi for him. No problem, I said, adding I still had another shop to see, although how could it compare with the European flair of Zermatt Haus?
When I visited Rudy and Beth in 1979, Salomon had roughly 2,800 binding outlets. The experiment called “Jackson Hogen, Service Representative,” was deemed necessary because sales reps couldn’t possibly visit all their far-flung accounts and still nurture the majors who underpinned the whole business.
Today, roughly 2,000 of that number are gone. The independent, urban specialty retailer is more endangered than the black rhino. Few save their lessors will lament the passing of the many chain locations that have been shuttered. But we’ve also lost a great many more that were like Zermatt Haus, unicorns that seem like they couldn’t have been real. Their owners were evangels of the sport, investing all they had and all they were in teaching skiers, one-by-one, to swivel their feet from 9:00 o’clock to 3:00.