Community Connections: Alpenglow Sports’ Retail Magic

Owner Brendan Madigan standing on the floor in Alpenglow Sports Retail shop

Years before owning Alpenglow Sports, Brendan Madigan’s experience in retail began like many other folks who’d moved to Lake Tahoe, chasing a powdery dream. He worked to ski, and learned from his co-workers to ski before work. What sets Brendan apart is a combination of thoughtful, compassionate focus on the greater good with the sort of drive it takes to skin thousands of feet up a mountain before clocking in to work the floor all day.

Since buying the iconic shop, Brendan’s gone on to turn the well-established Tahoe specialty retail store into an internationally-renown hub for community-focused events and fundraising. In an era of outdoors brand conglomerations and faceless shopping experiences, Alpenglow is a fixture from a past where human connections were valued above all else.

Alpenglow Sports from the outside, looking at the front door

With its focus on people first, it’s also a beacon for what we at Darn Tough value — making the best socks we can locally, and the retailers who create community locally.

We sat down with Brendan to learn more about his inspiration for giving back to the customers and community that are at his store’s core.

When did Alpenglow open, why did you buy it, and what sets it apart?

Alpenglow Sports as I know it started in 1979. It started here in the city, right on the shores of Lake Tahoe, this amazing playground.

I’m technically the second owner. And we really wanted to move forward with ownership because we saw a tremendous potential, and the potential was really predicated on community demand. Alpenglow has been big on our community business model, giving back to the people that have supported the shop for approaching 50 years now.

When I talk about the feeling of responsibility, I feel an obligation to the generation that founded the industry to keep that torch alive. To keep showing up at the skin track at five in the morning, regardless of the snow conditions, to crew people in their first 100-miler — that’s what this industry was founded on.

Rows of backpacks, hats, and Darn Tough socks in Alpenglow Sports store

Alpenglow has been a core staple here on the North Shore, for everything a mountain shop should be: technical beta, trail conditions, snow conditions. We’re that mountain hub that everyone goes to when you travel for the best advice, whether it’s about powder runs or taco stands.

Your shop has an outsized presence for a relatively small footprint. What’s it like inside there?

I think because of our reputation, people who haven’t been here might think we’re much bigger than we are. But we’re a small shop that does big or medium volume, and we work on things in small, nimble teams.

The sales floor is about 2600 square feet, so it's pretty little. It's invariably a sardine can. We’re a heritage shop at this point just based on our survival rates and years, which a lot of shops don't get to or want to get to.

Can you talk about the shop’s core values, and how they’ve changed since you took over?

At its essence, the shop has always been about people. We like to say we’re part of the community, and the community is a sum of its parts, and we just feel an obligation to give back to the customers.

A view of the Alpenglow sales floor, showing fluffy hats and warm clothes

I remember my boss, who I bought the shop from, he said, “I think we're totally different because I think of my shop as a hardware store. You open the door in the morning, close it at night and go home.” And for us, it was much more all in — this shop has been around a long time, and it's been validated by the community, and we’ve got to give back for that. And I think at the core level, we all should be helping other people.

It's easy in life to get focused on “me” instead of “we,” the collective. And I think that's at the root cause of a lot of issues in our world right now. So, on a granular level, we can interact with people every day and just connect with them as humans.

How did you end up with such a strong focus on connecting to the community?

I was asked this question after dinner with a family friend, who was wondering why we do our Speaker Series — our best community effort that’s raised nearly $1,500,000 for local non-profits at this point. I really had to think about it.

Alpenglow has always been about service, good service and technical gear. The shop came up in the seventies and saw what I would call the heyday of the outdoor industry when it was full of iconic personalities, cutting edge athletes, really this kind of golden era where you could work in retail, and also be a professional climber. They weren’t mutually exclusive — quite the opposite. Alpenglow has always been about.

A wall covered in wool socks and nordic skis

When I purchased the shop, we steered more to community offerings. Before backcountry skiing was so in vogue, we would do public avalanche education in the shop. This was probably 2007-8, and we would get 150 people in the shop — that was a lightbulb moment for me that we had a platform that Alpenglow had built over a lot of years of respecting good people, and giving good beta to the community, and I felt like we had a responsibility to kind of pour gas on that fire.

Quickly after that was the creation of social media. When a couple friends here from the shop went to Denali to do a ski descent, we would post our updates on Facebook. We had this huge following of locals, and when we got back they would come in and talk to us about the trip. That was also a light bulb moment for me, that there was this symbiosis between Alpenglow as a mountain shop and our customers. We care about the customers, and they were interested in what we were doing. There was a lot of appetite there for education.

What’s it like to work at Alpenglow? From what we see, it’s kind of like Darn Tough, where’s it’s a family.

I've always said to the staff is, whether you stay here for a season or your whole career, I want you to think of your job fondly, that you work with good people, you're treated fairly, you have fun, you get to help people, and you get to chase your passions.

I'm transparent with people and say, you're not going to make six figures at Alpenglow. I don't make six figures, and I work eight days a week. But you can love your job, you know, and you can you can use it as a mechanism to have adventures in the mountains. And that's that, full circle, right? It’s job satisfaction, but it’s also personal satisfaction, which then creates a feedback loop for the store and the customers.

And it works. Most of our staff is multi-year tenured, more than five years, and some that I’ve worked with for over 20. I try to pay as much as I possibly can and then have a good company culture that warrants people having fun and enjoying it and sticking around. But it’s a constant challenge to do it well, and we definitely don't always get it right. And that's what makes a family.

You saw a huge amount of support during the initial COVID lockdown — how did that experience highlight the value of retail, and your definition of community?

It speaks to what good specialty retail puts into the world. I think if you do right by people, you create an energy within your four walls, and for Alpenglow that’s been perpetuated for a long time. It's a compounding effect when you’re giving back— whether it's in good beta or community events or fundraising— that kind of makes your destiny acceptable in the community.

A lot of people come up here on the weekends; maybe they have a summer home, or their family has come up from Oakland forever. Part of their experience is shops like Alpenglow or the other North Shore staples. I think that that's magnified over time where you have an emotional connection to a store, and you don't want to see that store fail.

The Alpenglow Sports store sign, topped with a fresh layer of snow

Most of us use online retailers because of the sheer convenience. But I think if we had a small mom and pop outlet that was easy to use, it would 100% be people's preference. People want that that customization in their lives across all channels, their shopping, their friendships. I think that the world is so connected digitally, but also, we've never been so disconnected from a human perspective.

The answer to your question is people want to feel connected and they want to feel a part of something that is arguably more than who they are as just individuals. It's the definition of community, right?

What’s your collaboration with Darn Tough been like?

It's so refreshing because it's a new-school brand, I would say, with an old school mentality, that understands that the core of the industry is the small retailer. Maybe some people can align with those huge commodity sites, but our industry wasn't built on those concepts.

It's very authentic. It's not just “we want to be the sock sponsor because you have a big event.” It's “we want to be a sock sponsor because we believe in your vision first and foremost.” I can think of two companies who have ever come to me and said, we want to support more of your events. And Darn Tough was the first to ever do that for Alpenglow.

Alpenglow Sports wall covered in Darn Tough socks

It comes back to the connection, right? I'm the customer to Darn Tough. They treat me like I treat my customers. And it makes for a very fertile, productive, fun relationship. The collaborative process is where the magic happens, and that has a trickle-down effect. If you're working with good partners who believe in your vision, you can then take that energy and build amazing things out of it. Ultimately the end user benefits — from the sock buyer, run participant, to the Speaker Series attendee.

Can you tell us how the Speaker Series started? Did you think it would turn into such an established event?

The Speaker Series started as what a local hero in town here calls “cave person TV.” It's a story as old as time — we go on adventures, we want to gather with our friends because we're social mammals, and drink beer and have a good time and share those stories. It started in a tiny restaurant, a dinner and a movie for 20 people or 25 people. At the root of it, it was just an excuse for people to gather. And that's what social creatures want, and arguably have to do for health.

I didn't go into the speaker series and think, ‘in 20 years this is going to have an online presence and viewing parties.’ It was ‘these people are doing cool shit, let's talk about it and give that community some inspiration.’ And over the years, we put on our adult pants a little bit and kind of refined our mission statement to create a twofold goal.

You're watching a show from Jeremy Jones or Hilaree Nelson or Glenn Plake or Lynn Hill, so first is to inspire and motivate athletes of every walk of life to chase their own dreams in the mountains. The second part is to educate about and raise funds for local nonprofits making a tangible difference here in the Northlake community. And once we did that, it's no different than that avalanche awareness concept that I talked about from 2006-7— you do something authentic that you care about and you put it out there in the world and usually it works out.

I didn't set off in the direction of making it a 600 person show, but it doesn't surprise me, because everyone loves adventure in our industry, and everyone loves a good story with some comedy and some heartbreak. That’s just an easy equation for people to get down with. And I guess we're super proud of it, but it's also, again, just us doing how we think we should behave.

Let’s talk about change — what's your shop's stake in trying to retain the best of the outdoors industry, while moving thing forward in a positive direction?

I think on a foundational level, it comes down to treating any human that walks in the door with respect and compassion. When a customer's being difficult, it highlights how you just don't know what's going on in people's lives. That could be a perfectly awesome human that’s having a bad day for a reason that you don't know about, so why not treat them with compassion — those ripples turn into waves, right?

All of us in our outdoor spaces, it's a bigger concept than just selling things. You can make your community a better place foundationally just by how you treat people. But I do live in a predominantly white, affluent mountain town, and that's only getting more pronounced over time.

What we try to do is channel our change-making ability into the fundraising that we do. We try to foster a relationship with the organizations who are really the ones moving the needle in the community. By creating a two-year relationship with them, where we're going to raise $150,000 or more total for them, we also create a closer bond with these organizations and Alpenglow, the Donor Party, and the viewers who come to the Winter Speaker Series shows or view it from Florida or Poland or all the other places people tune in from.

A display in Alpenglow Sports showing socks, stickers, and gloves

That's really where we've put our energy. And I don't know if that's right or wrong, but we do feel strongly about doing everything we can to be welcoming to everyone, to be inclusive. Do we need drastic change? Yes. But on a daily basis, you know, you can do better just in how you treat people.

If you're trying to make the world a better place, you're trying to make people feel good. That's what outdoor industry has always been about. It has been about fun and feel good, and I think the shops like mine have a responsibility to that. It's pretty simple, but it's pretty profound.

Why Retail Matters

Darn Tough Vermont® is where we are today because of Specialty Retail. Period.

We started out as essentially a word-of-mouth company, and Specialty Retailers like Alpenglow took a chance on us. Specialty Retail employees’ product expertise, love of the brand, and enthusiasm for our socks — in and out of their stores — has been the biggest driver of our growth.

We are so grateful to have so many loyal and incredible partners across the globe, and are excited to be highlighting Brendan and his store here today.

All photos in this post are courtesy of Scott Rokis.