Riding the wave
From Sorels to splitboards, 25 years of ups and downs in the boarding biz

Riding the wave

Boarding Haus owner John Agnew with a board just like his first one in 1976: an aluminum "GrinTech." Next week, Agnew celebrates 25 years of the Boarding Haus, which he started in 1995 with the help of former HassleFree Sports owner Tommy Peterson. Housed in the tiny cinderblock building next to Hasslefree on N. Main, the Boarding Haus moved downtown to take over Inferno's Main Avenue spot in 2017./ Photo by Missy Votel

Missy Votel - 08/20/2020
by Missy Votel

It all started in the 1970s in Aspen with a skateboarding chef, carrying a loaf of bread.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God. What is that?’” remarked a now much wiser John Agnew. “And that was the birth of my interest.”
Interest in what, you may ask. Chefing? Bread? Food delivery? Au contraire – in that moment the seeds were planted in Agnew’s fertile mind for a long, mostly illustrious love affair with boarding. Skateboarding, snowboarding and probably surfing, hoverboarding and snurfing (we did not verify everything on this extensive list, but he appears to be a john of all trades) soon followed. All of which manifested in Durango’s longest-standing, continually-owned-by-the-same-dude board shop, the Boarding Haus, which celebrates 25 years next week. (*Bubba’s Boards also turns 25 this year, although it is no longer owned by the great Bubba himself.)
“I feel so fortunate to still be doing what I’m doing and I love it,” said Agnew, 54.

But, as in all good love stories, there is a twist. See, although Agnew grew up skateboarding, he did not start out loving snowboarding – to be fair, it didn’t exist until he was in his early 20s. No – his first love was skiing. For his formative years growing up in Durango, Agnew was a racer, on what he thought was the fast track to Olympic fame. Unfortunately, his dreams of Olympic glory didn’t quite pan out. His family, which owned the Purgatory Lodge near the entrance to Purg for a number of years, moved away. After an absence, Agnew returned after high school in the ’80s to attend Fort Lewis College. And while he still ski raced, it was then that he got his first taste of sweet, sweet powder on one plank. (No, not a monoboard – a snowboard. Think first-gen Burton or Sims splittail with Sorels.)

Guess you could say it was love at first ride.

“There was something about it that just spoke to me,” said Agnew. “It was so flowy and fluid and playful.”
Plus, by then, skiing had begun to feel like a job – which few twentysomethings tend to associate with fun. But snowboarding, with its absence of tight skinsuits, gates and timing stations, was the complete opposite. “All I did was smile and have fun when I rode. The passion just grew … it’s still growing.”

After graduating FLC, Agnew put his passion to work, managing the dearly departed Hasslefree Sports. He mentioned to owner Tommy Peterson the rapid growth of this newfangled sport he had discovered and pitched the idea of having a separate section in the store dedicated to it. Peterson took it a step further – in 1995 renting out the ramshackle cinderblock building immediately to the south of Hasslefree, which was recently vacated by Natural Grocer’s. That building became the home of the Boarding Haus for the next 22 years, selling snowboards in the winter and skateboards in the summer, along with the associated swag. BMX bikes were also added to the mix, although Agnew said has had not been able to get bikes due to the pandemic. The Boarding Haus occupied the same spot until 2017, when it moved to Main Avenue, in the space formerly occupied by Inferno, the town’s OG board shop.

“It was such a great experience. I got to create a store, make the name, draw the logos, order all the product,” Agnew said.

Of course, just as snowboarding saw a meteoric rise in the 1990s, so did snowboard shops.

“The year we opened we went from one other board shop in town to seven,” he recalled. “It was on this trajectory. Instantly, it was brutal.”

But, to borrow a term, he rode it out, buying the business from Peterson in 2000.

Since then, Agnew has seen his share of ups and downs, no pun intended. He credits his longevity to personalized customer service and attention to quality product. And whatever you do, when you walk in, don’t ask about Burton. He doesn’t carry it – never has. “I’m not a hater,” he said. “I absolutely appreciate the history and what they’ve done.”

It’s just that, despite all Jake Burton did for the sport and bringing it to the mainstream, when Agnew first started out, he did not exactly feel the love from the company or its reps.

“I thought, ‘You know what? There’s so much better stuff. I’m just going to focus on the things that are not as mainstream,’” he recalled. “I really delved into finding what I thought was the best product instead of just the biggest name.”  

Turns out, being a rebel in what was once a rebel sport paid off. “It really turned into a good thing and finding what I believe are of some of the most amazing companies in the business,” he said.

Within the last decade or so, Agnew has seen yet another seismic shift in the industry. Seems ski companies got the wider-is-better memo, making fatter, more rockered skis to mimic the shreddyness of snowboards. With that, Agnew saw younger kids moving away from snowboarding back to skiing. He said people realized they could get on skis and do the same tricks without the “break-in” time of learning to snowboard. “They could go out and do things right away, whereas with boarding, it’s really hard to learn at first,” he said.

(*Yes, we know this a hot button topic and the source of many a heated apres debate. Agnew, who spent a lifetime skiing as you’ll recall, notes that mastering skiing is much harder than mastering snowboarding. He is only saying that the first few days of learning to snowboard can be, shall we say, a bit rougher than skiing. There is no “snowplow” or “pizza” wedging in boarding – it’s all or nothing.)

Since the skiing renaissance hit, the attrition to two planks has seemed to level off, he said, with snowboard sales remaining steady. He attributes this to a dedicated populace of local snowboarders. “I don’t know what it is about Durango, but there are a lot of snowboarders here,” he said.

 At the same time, he said interest in skateboarding – as with most other outdoor activities – has boomed since the pandemic began.

“It’s really neat,” he said. “I’m seeing people my age coming in and saying, ‘I haven’t skateboarded in 30 years but COVID hit and I got time on my hands and I want to get back into it.’ Or they say, ‘my kids skate and I want to skate with them.’”

The latter is something Agnew, a father of a 5-year-old daughter, can identify with. Yes, she snowboards. But, in an effort to more easily explore the mountain with her (read: negotiate cat tracks), he is also teaching her to ski. Which means last winter, after 25 years, he went back to the “other” sport.

“It’s like riding a bike,” he said. “It was fun.” Mind you, the last time he stepped into ski bindings, skis were 205s and about the width of your iPhone, which didn’t exist at the time. “It was real interesting with the new shape of skis – I’d never been on them. It was a treat.”

But not to worry – Agnew is not going to the dark side (which for snowboarders is the exact opposite of what it is for skiers.) Snowboarding is still his second first love (or is it first second?)
“I’d like to (ski) some more, but I don’t think it’ll ever take over,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s just going to keep on doing what he does, hoping to get back to this three days/week riding schedule next winter. And, of course, sharing the stoke (which I’m pretty sure is jibber parlance for “extremely enthusiastic.”)

“I’m not sure what the future holds, but I am so much enjoying what I do,” he said. “It’s all about playing on the mountain, to be able to surf down the hill. It puts a smile on your face.”

(Missy Votel tried snowboarding for a week in 1993. She sucked and soon after started telemarking, which she also sucked at. To this day, she isn’t really sure if she’s fakey or not.)  

Riding the wave

John Agnew takes a ride down memory lane with some early snowboards, which hang over the downtown shop./ Photo by Missy Votel