“Come on in, boys!” she calls from behind the wooden counter — hand-made by her son — as she gestures at the carpeted space between a rack of parkas and a TV flickering with the images of a downhill ski race.
The two men she’s calling to are far from boys, but they smile and lug the cooler they’ve borrowed toward the rack. They’re still smiling as they leave.
It’s the first week of August, and Kathy Denise stands in the middle of a winter wonderland: white paper snowflakes dangle from the ceiling, swaying slightly with the air-conditioner’s currents, and two retired ski lifts sit in as benches outside of the changing stalls.
When retired ski lifts are cut from their cables, they slam to the ground and collapse. Their metal frames pucker and bend. They’re virtually useless and not much to look at, but they’ve been rescued by Denise’s oldest son and husband. Lugged home, straightened and refurbished just for the store. At the moment, Denise’s husband and son are hammering at a third ski lift to be installed soon, one with particularly crooked metal limbs. It’s hard work, but this is a self-made business, in every sense of the word.
“All these wood structures,” she said, gesturing at the racks and the counter, “Were made by my son. So [were] the lifts.” She smiles, sweeping her hand across the counter. “What you see is a family effort.” And every hand-made wood structure was hand-stained by herself and her daughter-in-law.
From the inside, the Ski Renter on Bollinger Road could be mistaken for a rustic log cabin, with icicles hanging down the windows. Upon closer look, the icicles are merely plastic, translucent in the sun, with white LED light embedded inside.
Still, it’s a convincing display. When her three sons had worked at the store, all throughout their high school years, none of this had existed: no lift chairs, no hand-nailed racks and certainly no snowflakes.
That was before Denise took over.
“My sons had all worked here, so when the [owner] was selling, my husband and I bought the business,” she said.
They were originally located at South De Anza Boulevard, but they moved to their northern location in 2007, where they share the complex with six other businesses. The business itself hasn’t changed much: they still sell ski, snowboard and backpacking equipment; they still have technicians who tune and wax skis. The cost of their services have largely stayed the same. What hasn’t is the rent.
“Rents have gone up,” Denise said. “They’ve certainly risen. I tell people if they own their houses, hold on to them... They’re worth so much now.”
Despite the past decade’s rapidly rising rents, Denise’s main challenge has actually been something even more out of her control: the weather. The drought means that there is less rain in Cupertino and less snow in Tahoe, which means less business. Which means less money for rent.
“There’s no snow,” Denise said. “And that has been a struggle.”
Still, her family hasn’t lost their excitement about the business: they affectionately call themselves a “ski family.” Her husband is on the ski patrol at Tahoe Donner, and all three of her sons started skiing at age one or two. Squeezed between their father’s legs as they were ushered downhill, they soon surpassed their mother, racing down the mountain at the highest speeds one or two-year-olds can go.
To Denise and her “ski family,” the Ski Renter is more than about just merchandise and marketing. Snow or no snow, they’re open seven days a week.
“There is a sense of community,” Denise said, moments before she ushers in two new customers. “That is the most important.”
As a Spanish teacher at Santa Clara High School, Denise can only work on afternoons and the weekends. But soon, her daughter-in-law will take over on Saturdays — and they’re both excited. Despite the weather and the rent, the business will stay in the family, at least for now.
“My daughter-in-law is from Hawaii and had never skied,” Denise said, recalling the first winter, the winter of 2008, her family had taken her daughter-in-law to the mountains. “Now she knows more than I could have ever dreamed about skiing. About skis and snowboards and everything.”
And now Denise’s son and daughter-in-law have a daughter of their own. As Denise prepares to pass on Saturday duties to her daughter-in-law, her son will soon learn to teach his own daughter to ski. Things have changed. Things have also stayed the same.
Denise smiles as she thinks of her granddaughter learning to ski. She recalls learning to ski at age 15, the snow, the thrill of going downhill. But the rush, the wind, isn’t the only thing she treasures now.
“My favorite part about skiing?” She pauses. “Well, going anywhere with my family is the best experience.”