Burlington-Based Online Ski Brand J Skis Takes a Run at Downtown Retail | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington-Based Online Ski Brand J Skis Takes a Run at Downtown Retail

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Published November 9, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 9, 2022 at 10:16 a.m.


J Skis - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • J Skis

It's hard to decipher the graffiti scrawled across the brick exterior of Burlington's Memorial Auditorium, but it probably doesn't read, "Welcome to the Queen City." A new business across the street will offer that proverbial greeting instead, especially to skiers and snowboarders.

J Skis, a brand founded in 2013 by Vermont ski designer J Levinthal, is opening its first brick-and-mortar store at 247 Main Street to complement its online trade. Levinthal and his wife, Corrine, have been sprinting toward the November 12 and 13 grand opening since May of this year, when they bought the building most recently occupied by O'Brien's Salon.

The store will sell J Skis gear and accessories, and Levinthal also envisions the site as "an experience," he said — "a ski-themed environment" where people of all ages can shop, relax après-ski, watch snow-sports movies, play video games, eat bar snacks and drink canned beverages.

Barn-board walls give the shop a mountain lodge look, and chairlifts and sundry ski paraphernalia add to the slope-side effect. Photographs and materials on display will offer a glimpse of the J Skis brand history and manufacturing process. Levinthal compares the concept to the Hard Rock Café franchise — except for the franchise part.

"You go there because you like music and you want to be surrounded by it," Levinthal said. "This is the same thing. You like these types of sports, and that's what you're here for."

The inspiration for the J Skis downtown address was Levinthal's own desire for such a place to unwind and commune. He asked around at bars to see if anyone had considered the approach — "hoping they would do it," he said — but to no avail. So, he and Corrine began breaking trail. Corrine, who navigated the process of securing a liquor license, among other tasks, thinks the location is prime.

"You ride the gondola [and see that] people come from all over the world to these mountains," Corrine said. "And they come to Burlington, or they stay in Burlington, so it's just nice to also have a place for them to come into and hang out." She and Levinthal hope the overall vibe will create a chill retreat for winter sports enthusiasts, tourists and even youths who want a place to kick back after school.

Times were, kids could hang out and listen to music at 242 Main in the basement of the blighted-looking building visible from J Skis. Levinthal doesn't seem fixated on the sorry state of Memorial Auditorium, but it's impossible to ignore. The city's gateway to the business district, he notes, is a two-way street.

"We're spending a lot of money and a lot of time on something that we don't have to, but we know it's going to be good for the town," Levinthal said. "We don't need to do this for our business. Let's put it that way. We're perfectly fine selling online. But I'd like to do more, and I hope that the town does the same with the property that isn't being utilized properly."

The ski gear market is tight, its sales cycles as seasonal as the sport it serves, and Levinthal has worked hard to set his product apart. Handmade to high performance standards at a factory in Rimouski, Québec, J Skis are limited editions produced by the hundreds, not thousands. Levinthal signs and numbers each pair, like an artist with a print. Professional collaborating artists add visual style to the product line.

Selling directly to consumers, bypassing retailers (except the new store), has allowed J Skis to deliver maximum value for the price — in the $400 to $900 range — which is comparable to established ski brands such as Rossignol. The J Skis brand identity, which Levinthal said doesn't take skiing too seriously, is also key. He's fond of the company tagline: "It's Just Skiing."

The J Skis brand's most appealing facet, however, may be Levinthal's own profile, a biography well documented in snow-sports media. "There's a face behind the brand. That's me," he said. "People know my history and trust me to design a good ski."

That's not boasting. Many in the industry credit Levinthal with popularizing the twin-tip ski with a design he developed in his parents' Guilderland, N.Y., garage in 1995. Twin-tip skis, which have more or less the same upward-bending tip in the back as in the front, had been around for a while by then but were not widely used. Interest hit a tipping point in the 1990s under the influence of snowboards, which are twin-tipped, and the growth of the freestyle and free-riding movements that flourished thanks to twin-tipped equipment.

J and Corrine Levinthal - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • J and Corrine Levinthal

Levinthal's innovation was the skiboard — a shorter, wider twin-tipped ski that gave skiers the range of motion and repertoire of moves that snowboarders were enjoying and that were converting skiers en masse to the newer mountain sport.

Levinthal and close friend Mike Nick showed the world what twin-tipped skis could do when Nick won a gold medal and Levinthal won bronze on skiboards in the first X Games skiboarding competition in 1998. Nick won silver in 1999 and 2000, too. (Learn more about Mike Nick in "Nick of Time.")

Levinthal's upstart LINE brand carved a niche that led to its 1999 acquisition by then-Burlington-based Karhu, a venerable outfit known for Nordic skis. This brought Levinthal to Vermont. When another ski titan, K2, purchased LINE and Karhu in 2006, Levinthal opted to work from home in Burlington rather than relocate to K2's base in Seattle. "Once I moved here, I fell in love with it and never wanted to leave," he recalled.

Levinthal left K2 in 2013 to start J Skis. "That's when I knew I could do things very different," he said. In 2017, he acquired another ski brand, Utah-based freestyle leader 4FRNT, and took the financially struggling company from traditional retail distribution into e-commerce and digital marketing. He sold the revived company in 2020 so that he could refocus on J Skis alone.

Levinthal's industry track record justifies his confidence in J Skis' sales overall — annually 6,000 pairs of twin-tipped skis, plus clothing and accessories to another 3,000 people, he estimated — even if he's uncertain about how much retail receipts will contribute to the Burlington bottom line.

"We'll discover things that work really well and things that don't work at all," he said. "We don't know right now which is which, but we do know that its soul is in art and sports and skiing and a space to do something that doesn't exist."

What Levinthal doesn't know about retail — by his own admission — Corinne can help supply. The transplant from Worcester, Mass., met her future husband while working at Skirack in downtown Burlington. She would eventually work as a Rossignol sales rep before starting a career in information technology. For the moment, though, she's part of the all-hands-on-deck squad striving to get the endeavor out of the gate. Doug Stewart, another Skirack veteran, will manage the store.

J Skis will share the interior terrain with snow-sports entrepreneurs Chris "Rooster" James and Geoff McDonald, cofounders in 2005 of the Ski the East apparel and accessories brand. Having relocated to Burlington from Williston, Ski the East will make the J Skis location its flagship store, although other retailers will continue to sell their products. Levinthal has dubbed the shared store "our Intergalactic Headquarters."

"We really get to deck it out to the max," McDonald said of the space Ski the East will occupy. This will mean displaying their wares, showcasing their company story and screening decades' worth of snow-sports movies, including their Meathead Films, which date back to their student years at the University of Vermont.

James noted that his company's strong connection to the UVM Ski & Snowboard Club, reportedly the largest collegiate club of its kind in the country, could bolster the customer base. Some Ski the East environmental advocacy partners, he added, including 1% for the Planet and Protect Our Winters, might also use the J Skis venue for events and promotions.

Levinthal said, as far as he's concerned, other ski brands would also be welcome. "I'm more about doing what's best for the sport," he explained. "It'll help my brand if it helps the sport." Everyone on the J Skis downtown launch team shares a vision of a snow-sports community gathering place. Corinne called that purpose "the main thing."

Together, the J Skis and Ski the East collaborators also possess considerable insight into Vermont's entrepreneurial culture, which fuels Levinthal's optimism about where this bend in the trail could lead. "It's the hub of entrepreneurship, Vermont," he said. "I've never found another place that's so supportive of anyone with an idea or a skill."

Corinne is also looking on the bright side. "There's that hole," she said, referring to the contentious CityPlace Burlington pit between Bank and Cherry streets. "But I also feel like there's new life being breathed into Burlington, as well. It may be just turning over a little bit, and we also hope to support that."

For Levinthal, the J Skis store may fill a different kind of gap, one inherent in the e-commerce business model: "The closest you can get to your customer is shaking their hand," he said. "Now they'll be able to come in and have something to chew on."

Learn more at jskis.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Snow Angles | A Burlington-based online ski brand takes a run at downtown retail"