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July 9, 2014

Two Truths & A Lie: Bill Langlands

Two Truths & A Lie: Bill Langlands

Editor’s note: Two truths and a lie is a popular social icebreaker. Can you pick the lie out of the three statements? The answer will be revealed throughout the story. Look for this profile weekly.

1) He ran a wholesale seafood business
2) He aspired to be a lawyer after college
3) He started snowboarding when he was 3 years old

Bill Langlands founded Darkside Snowboards in 1989 and now has shops in Ludlow and Stowe in addition to Killington. But being among the first retailers to thrive on the snowboard scene was not exactly a likely outcome for Langlands.

“It all really happened by accident,” he admits.

“To go way back, it started with Jeff Gehris, who owns The Garlic right now,” Langlands said, explaining that Gehris also owned Casey’s Caboose (which was originally Orient Express), Nightspot Outback, and owned PPeppers which is now Wally’s.”
In 1984-85, Gehris hadn’t yet started the Nightspot Outback, and wanted someone to put a pizza place on the road.

“He and I went out looking for a pizza place, but no one wanted to do it. We had bought a lot of property on the access road that we were developing and one day when we were cutting down trees in September and Jeff said: ‘I got an idea.’ So we put our chainsaws down and walked out to the road and he said, ‘We’ll open a ski shop!’ And I said, ‘Jeff we don’t know anything about the ski business,’ But he persisted saying, “Look, I got the cash, you figure out how much it’s going to cost and we’ll open a ski shop. We’ll have the restaurant next door… it’ll be great.”

That was September. By Thanksgiving they had opened Blue Moon Sports ski shop next to PPeppers restaurant.

“Luckily for us it was the winter of 1985-86 and I’m pretty sure that was the busiest winter Killington’s ever had since then… They had 1.2-1.3 million visitors that year,” Langlands remembered. “Because of that we made it through the year. We paid our bills. We didn’t make any money, but we stocked the shop… we really blasted it out.”

“The first year I had that ski shop, Tina (his wife) was still teaching at that time, if you bought a jacket I’d give you a hat, free,” Langlands said. “Tina came in the next year and said, ‘Why are we giving hats away?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know ’cause we have to sell jackets?” I had no clue.”

But the shop prospered, and in 1989 Langlands decided to start renting snowboards and began snowboarding himself.

“It just really intrigued me,” he said. “Plus, I was probably the worst ski shop owner/skier in the country. My wife was a beautiful skier, is a beautiful skier still, but I just never was… The day I got on a snowboard, I caught on right away and it was like, ‘Wow! This is it. This is my sport!'” Langlands said, adding that it’s also the snowboard lifestyle that continues to be appealing.

Since he switched to boarding, Langlands has never gone back to skiing. “Not once,” he said emphatically. “I love skiers to death, I love them wearing my clothes, but no, I never went back.”

ORIGINAL DARKSIDE

About the time he started renting snowboards in the upstairs of the ski shop, Langlands also secured a space for the original Darkside, where he and Gehris would eventually build the tower between the Nightspot Outback and Darkside. “It was a $40K tower and that thing was lit up like you read about. On the top floor it had the moon, which is now up on the hill. It was a giant six-foot moon face that spun one way then below we had a clown face that spun the opposite way. I still have that here.”

The original Darkside had black walls, purple fixtures and construction lighting, the kind with bright yellow lights.

“The whole concept back then for snowboard shops was to be really gnarly, you know, chain link fences, no merchandizing. So we wanted to create a place that looked ‘core,’ but we could still merchandize it really well,” he explained.

The original counter was constructed out of 55-gallon drums painted purple that Langlands and staff had cut and put glass on top. It wasn’t very practical, but “it was good for the image,” he said. “We were really shooting for image at the time. That’s why we built the tower; it was like if you’re going to open a snowboard shop in Killington, this is the price of admission.”

This was also around that time that Langlands bought an old Dodge power wagon that he guessed was circa 1945.

“It was a pearlescent, white panel truck that we had Darksided all up. It was beautiful. You couldn’t drive it anywhere, but it was beautiful,” he said. The truck did run, but the furthest anyone ever dared to drive it was Stratton.

“We almost died!” a few employees at the shop remembered.

“It was a real truck, no power steering, no power brakes, no heat… it was awful to drive,” Langlands said. “If you drove 30 miles in it, you felt like you had gone across the country. It was really bad, but it looked great.”

Langlands mostly had it on display in front of the shop, but he would also bring it up to the mountain. “We put six foot speakers in the back and we’d open up those doors and just blast the music out. It’s all about image, and we had it,” he said of those years.

A LITTLE FISHY

Before venturing into his ski and snowboard shops in the mid-1980s, Langlands had been in the wholesale seafood business for 10 years.

“I had six trucks, three markets, and I sold to nearly every restaurant in Vermont and some in Hanover, New Hampshire and Western Mass. too,” he said.

Not surprisingly, he backed into that business as well. After graduating from St. Michael’s College in 1974, he became a bartender in Woodstock and Killington. One day when talking to ‘Mad Jack Murdock,’ from Mad River Fish, who delivered fresh seafood once a week, he landed a job with him.

“I did that for about a year and had brought a friend up to work with us,” Langlands recalled, “but then Jack wanted to get out of the business, so the next thing you know we bought a truck and were in the fish business… We were called McCarthy’s Fish because his name sounded Irish, which was more fishy than Langlands… and we did that for 10-11 years.”

THEY LAUGHED AT ME

“When I sold fish, I sold you swordfish, you swordfish and you, you and you. Every restaurant on the road had swordfish, if they wanted it. Well, in the ski business if you have Rossignols, I can’t get Rossignol,” Langlands said of the differences between the businesses.

“It’s called protective distribution and I just had no inkling as to what that was coming from seafood to the ski industry… My first season they wouldn’t even let me retail skis, so I bought skis just for rental.”

It was a lesson well learned. When Langlands broke into snowboarding, he had his pick of snowboard brands with no competition.

“Quite frankly, nobody really wanted them in those days. The ski shops on this road that we had been in competition with as a ski shop literally laughed at me,” he said once they heard that he was bringing snowboards into Blue Moon Sports. He explained that many thought snowboarders didn’t have money or credit cards and since they were such a small part of the segment why should they bother.

Some people still have the perception that only kids snowboard, but that’s just not true, says Langlands.

“There are 70 year olds, 60 year olds, 50 year olds… certainly there are a lot of kids doing it, why wouldn’t they? But there are adults snowboarding too, a lot of them. Snowboarding is more free-spirited. Certainly our clothing reflects that and so do the boards… They all have artwork on them, they’re unbelievable, they’re beautiful… Every year I’ll have 400 different pieces of artwork in here. It’s just phenomenal.”

GROWTH OF A SPORT

In 1989, just about the time Langlands opened the original Darkside store, snowboarding began to take off due to vast improvements in equipment.

“Up until 1991-92 the bindings were just awful,” Langlands said. “They looked like the modern bindings, but the plastics and buckles and base plates weren’t as high tech, so they broke all the time…. In the old days, 150 straps would break on a good Saturday, it was unbelievable,” he said. “On a good cold day, we’d just be fixing those things all day long.”

But along with those struggles, Langlands saw snowboarding take off as a sport and he started to buy up all the brands. “We’d go to the shows, this is when there were 350 snowboard brands out there, and you had to pick out the ones that were going to win; that were going to make it,” he said. “So we’d go and check out the vibe to see what they were all about. It was fun.”

Certain ones were obvious, he continued, like Burton and Simms, but there were so many new companies popping up all over the place.

“In some sense, there are shops like mine all across the country, and we picked the right product, so we became ‘The Shops’ and it all kind of went hand-in-hand,” he said. “World Boards, Snowboard Connection, Wave Rave, you know there’s like 10 of us that kind of carry the same product today and we probably did 20 years ago, too. We picked them, then, and we continue to as well.”

Today, new brands, like Rome Snowboards continue to pop up.

“We got behind Rome right away,” Langlands said. “For one, they are Vermont-based in Waterbury, but we also needed another strong brand. In any business you need competition and Burton had gotten just huge, so we brought in Rome snowboards to complement them. In Vermont, we’re a small state, but we’re big in this industry. The two biggest companies we carry are Burton and Rome, which is natural for us.”

IT’S THE MECCA

“Killington is the beast,” Langlands says. “At the Darkside we say it’s the Mecca because people make trips here from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and all over the East Coast… They come here once a year to do their shopping and… get in touch with the whole industry, the whole feeling here, which is important.”

“We try to make it so that at the end of the day you can come in and hang out, watch a vid’, talk about your day… We get a lot of young kids, locals and folks from New York City who just like the vibe. You know, they have big jobs down there and they come in here and just feel great.”

Langlands keeps his shops young and cutting edge without much effort, thanks to his staff.

“I sold Aaron his first board… now he runs the shop,” Langland said, exemplifying his close connection to his employees, the sport and his customers. All his employees, he said, “get out and ride a lot. It makes them good with the customers… People come in and we can get them on the right board, which is important because we want them to love snowboarding for many years.”

THE ACCIDENTAL LIFE

“When we had the seafood business we were eating unbelievable food. Fresh fish everyday it was phenomenal… Now this, everyone here is on vacation. How can you beat this business?” Langlands said. “When it’s good, I’m out… I ride 3-5 days a week, a couple hours… You gotta do it, you know, it makes the whole day go by easier. It’s why we’re here.”

So with a 25-plus year successful career, you might think Langlands knew snowboarding would be his future from an earlier age. Not so, he says. “I thought I was going to become a lawyer after college. But there wasn’t a law school in the country that wanted me,” he laughs, adding, “Literally, no one took me. I even begged Vermont law school… But I guess you never know. I’m lucky they didn’t take me.”

“So this is all really just an accident, you see. But we’re here and it’s been a great life,” Langlands said, adding that Tina is the glue to the place. “I’m the upfront guy, she’s the nuts and bolts… She’s the smart one, she’s my secret… this store would have fallen apart years ago without her here to keep it all together.”

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