In it for the long haul: Totem’s Ski Shop turns 100
April 2011 a chance to recognize our customers, says owner
Carved into Jasper’s heritage with the likes of the superintendent’s residence and the railway station, Totem’s Ski Shop has been a permanent feature in Jasper for nearly as long as the park has been around.
In 1911, when W.S. Jeffrey’s and Sons opened its tent doors for business, the railroad boom, the newly established forest park, a blossoming tourism industry and good ol’ fashioned cowboy entrepreneurship shaped a Jasper very different from the one we see today.
These days at Totem’s, although the goods on the shelf are undoubtedly different than the ones stocked for early outfitters and work parties, the basic philosophy that underpinned the service was the same: offer the best goods and services available.
“If it’s a good deal for you and a good deal for me, that’s the best deal,” says Milt Gilmour, who has been with Totem’s since 1967. Totem’s was Jasper’s first ski shop and Gilmour was Totem’s first ski shop manager. Gilmour, whose personality and charm was the face of Totem’s for much of the past three decades, said he credits his partner, Roy Everest Sr. with laying a foundation of good ethics and work habits.
“Roy came from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and they had a pretty good reputation for excellence,” Gilmour said. “They did things like put dust covers over the merchandise at night and we still do that at Totem’s.”
In 2011, trail runners and lightweight backcountry tents have replaced the dry goods and provisions that would have required dust covers 100 years earlier. Ski and boot technicians have replaced tailors. And a staff of two has gone to a staff of 22.
Still, a century after the business opened its doors, Roy Everest Sr. says Totem’s only has its customers to thank.
“I think it’s a recognition of all our customers, more than anything,” said Mr. Everest, who, along with John Clarke, purchased the long-standing W.S. Jeffrey and Sons general store in 1956, before renaming it Totem’s. Back then, to stay competitive, Totem’s had to adapt to consumer trends. That’s still true today.
“I think we’ve been able to do good business because we’ve responded well to what people are interested in,” he said.
Be it the demands of railroaders of the turn of the 20th Century, work parties of the war effort or ski racers with a binding problem, to live, work and explore in Jasper, Totem’s has been helping people get things they need for a century.
“Outfitters needed gloves, so you carried them. Cowboys needed Stetsons, so you carried a good Stetson, one made of fur felt and water repellent,” Mr. Everest recalled.
However, although Totem’s has always been proud of its ability to stay relevant to customers, Gilmour recalled one time when he was reluctant to buy into a new trend.
“I was at a ski show in Las Vegas, There’s this guy there, he’s got this thing called a snowboard! His name’s Burton!” he laughed.
He pauses for effect. “I said ‘who’s going to want to do that?’”
Later that year, Gilmour was eating his words—and a group of snowboarders’ snow dust—when he watched them carve up variable conditions with ease.
“I was on 205 cm slalom skis watching these guys go through wind slab, corn snow, mashed potato and just carving it up! I had to credit Burton for making the first fat skis,” he said.
Totem’s has a history of thinking outside the box for the best product, even back when it was W.S. Jeffreys and Sons. As Jasper was a small and remote community, often, to find the best products, staff had to broaden their horizons. Mr. Everest recalled that after the Second World War, Germany was the place from which to order items such as small propane stoves and light weight pots and pans.
“We were finding products in Germany because they were the first country to recover after the war,” he said.
Likewise, Jeffrey’s and Sons brought in hand-knit sweaters from Norway and ropes, crampons and carabiners from France.
“There was a call for those items in Jasper,” Everest said.
There was also a call for something else in Jasper: community service. In the 70s, the town was growing, and those who stepped up to lead community boards, school committees and tourism commissions were often members of the business community. Roy Everest was one of those members. Active in service clubs and the local chamber of commerce, Everest even helped a young Joe Clark get his start in Yellowhead politics, when the former PM ran for Member of Parliament.
“The thing I always felt good about was the feeling that I was a part of the town,” Everest said.
Gilmour, who bought into Totem’s in 1967, agreed that being community-minded was a way to contribute to the bigger picture. By helping grow Jasper’s less-busy spring and fall seasons, business leaders at Totem’s became community ambassadors. Organizing fund-raisers, taking turns at the helm of the ski club and supporting young skiers whose families couldn’t afford the sport were all part of being a business owner at Totem’s.
“Totem’s has always been a real supporter of the Jasper Ski Team,” Gilmour said. “I remember a young skier named Loni who had fabulous ski potential. We explained to Rossignol that we had an up-and-coming racer and they ended up giving her a sponsorship.”
That young skier—Loni Klettl—went on to place 13th in the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games. Klettl said that Totem’s made a huge impact in her skiing career, simply because her family couldn’t have afforded the equipment, the training or the races.
“My dad was a warden, there were four kids in the family, there’s no way I would have been the skier I was if Totem’s didn’t help us,” she said.
These days, Totem’s still supports local athletes. In an era of internet shopping and huge wholesale gear stores, it’s these kind of initiatives that keeps a century-old business still relevant.
“How does a business like ours still compete? With our service,” Gilmour said.
Be that by having a great demo program, having a footwear expert on staff or supporting local fundraisers, Totem’s has stuck around for the long haul because of its service.
And at the heart of good service are good people.
“I think Totem’s staff feel privileged,” Gilmour said. “Privileged to have a chance to live here, to make a living here and to enjoy the lifestyle. And we are privileged to serve our customers and help them do the same.”
Everest agreed. “Every day was a joy,” he said. “I don’t recall ever trudging home at night.”