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Museum Musings: Selling snowboards

'The early snowboard shops in Whistler were instrumental in supporting local snowboarders and the growing sport.'
Tom Sims, original snowboarding legend, signs posters during a Showcase event in 1994. Showcase Snowboards was well-known for big parties and bringing in celebrity riders.

The natural terrain features, beginning of boarder cross, and the early adoption of a terrain park all helped cement Whistler’s important place in snowboard history. But the early snowboard shops in Whistler were also instrumental in supporting local snowboarders and the growing sport.

The first snowboard shop to open in Whistler, known simply as The Snoboard Shop, was launched by Ken Achenbach. Achenbach got into snowboarding in 1980 after he quit ski racing and was looking for something else to do during the long winters. He bought a snowboard from Tom Sims and was immediately hooked. He was so confident that snowboarding would be the next big thing that he borrowed his mom’s credit card and bought six more boards, intending to sell them to local stores. Ahead of his time, none of the stores wanted them, and Achenbach started selling the snowboards out of his Calgary garage to pay his mom back. This grew into The Snoboard Shop in Calgary, often referred to as the first snowboard shop in Canada (and one of the first in the world).

Soon, Achenbach was at the centre of the snowboarding world, competing in the first Snowboard World Championship and appearing throughout snowsports media. He came to Whistler to film, fell in love with the mountains, and in 1988 he opened The Snoboard Shop in Whistler.

Down an alley and out of the way, The Snoboard Shop was an institution, and opened before snowboards were even allowed up Whistler Mountain. Making up a surprisingly large portion of the snowboard market, according to Ken, when Transworld Snowboarding magazine came out, the only snowboarding magazine at the time, The Snoboard Shop accounted for one fifth of the magazine’s total sales.

Likewise, before boots specific to snowboarding were widely available, Sorel’s regular snow boots were popular with snowboarders. Modified with a ski-boot liner inside, they were the best snowboard boots on the market at the time. In a Whistler Museum Speaker Series event last year, Achenbach said The Snoboard Shop had some of the highest sales of Sorels in the country. When the Canadian representative for Sorels visited The Snoboard Shop to learn more about its success, the rep was shocked to see that it was not an outdoor adventure store. Playing an integral part during the early years of snowboarding in the resort, The Snoboard Shop in Whistler closed in 1996, when the team behind it moving on to new ventures.

Showcase was the second snowboard shop to open in the resort, and also holds an important place in Whistler hearts and history. Although today Showcase is known for snowboarding, when it opened in 1989, it was known as Showcase Tennis, as the Chateau Whistler Resort had just opened with six tennis courts, including two covered courts. However, not long after opening, management made the financial decision to pivot to snowboarding, which was blowing up, as both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains were now welcoming snowboarders. Blackcomb opened to snowboarders during the 1987-88 season, and Whistler opened the year after.

To properly cater to snowboarders, Showcase brought in Graham Turner as manager, who was a snowboard racer and Blackcomb Mountain employee. Turner was also early on the snowboard scene, making a snowboard in woodwork at school in the early 1980s before it was easy to buy one in Vancouver. Like so many others, he moved to Whistler to be closer to his favourite hobbies, snowboarding and mountain biking.

Showcase had events and marketing perfectly dialled, starting the Showcase Showdown, which is now touted as Canada’s longest-running snowboard competition. Fondly remembered by many, it sometimes seemed like half of Whistler was living on Kraft Dinner from Showcase thanks to its genius marketing ploy, selling three boxes for just 99 cents. Used as a “loss leader” to bring people into the store, the Kraft Dinner was excellent value even then. You can only imagine the lines out the door if that special came back today!

During Turner’s reign, Showcase became the biggest Burton dealer in North America, while growing the local snowboarding community.