LITTLETON, N.H. - Joe Lahout sleeps in the bedroom where he was born in 1922 above his father's grocery and dry-goods store at the corner of Union and Pine Streets in this New Hampshire gristmill village.
"I'm still here," Lahout said. So is the family business, now known as America's oldest ski shop, thanks to the 93-year-old World War II veteran with glacier-blue eyes.
"I had to fight like hell," he said, "to maintain our prestige and our name."
Today, Lahout's Country Clothing & Ski Shop remains a sacred waypoint for skiers who journey to the White Mountains, and for politicians on the early-state campaign trail. Jeb Bush dropped by in July, as did Mitt Romney during his first presidential run. Both candidates signed the shop's door frame near the Sharpie scrawl left by a local, gold-medal Olympian, Bode Miller.
In the age of chain stores and Internet commerce, the brick-and-mortar shop has lasted for nine decades and four generations of Lahout stewardship, a testament to the family's North Country grit and good fortune. Now, the Lahout name is instantly recognizable among skiers nationwide.
"I'm in Newport Beach, Calif., and a cop pulls me over," said Ron Lahout, one of Joe's three sons. "He goes, 'Lahout? My God, I bought my first pair of skis there,' " he said, noting that the officer let him go.
The store was founded in 1920 by Herbert Lahout, who arrived in the United States from the northeastern mountains of Lebanon in 1898, unable to speak English - or to read or write. Yet he rose from grime-stained railway worker to prosperous shop owner in the span of two decades. When Herbert died in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, his only son, Joseph, inherited the store.
As a boy, Joe Lahout learned to ski by hiking nearby Cannon Mountain - elevation 4,080 feet - and careering down. After Army service in World War II, Lahout returned to Littleton to run the family business and decided to use savings from his military paychecks to expand the shop inventory to include Northland skis made of maple.
For years, Lahout's had served as an outfitter for locals who skied, selling sweaters, flannel shirts, rubber boots. Under Joe Lahout, the store's focus on winter sports made the business flourish, partly because of his marketing ingenuity, sales acumen, and customer service.
Joe's son Herb said it was his father's idea to stock the shop like a Middle Eastern bazaar, piling the shelves high with outerwear, and retaining the building's rustic character, down to the weather-beaten floorboards that still creak underfoot. Joe said he sold his goods at a discount and with a smile - to the annoyance of other local retailers. Loyal Lahout's skiers often showed up at the store after lifts shut down at 4 p.m., and the shop became a makeshift watering hole. Joe kept a wheel of cheese in the back and served Budweiser and Schlitz.
According to family lore, a customer once asked Joe Lahout whether he was worried that the town's liquor commissioner might find out he sold beer without a proper license. "No," Joe replied. "He owes me money."
Good fortune played a part in the store's success as well. Beginning in the mid-1950s, road crews began construction on I-93, which brought traffic north from Boston to Littleton. The 21/2-hour drive is a picturesque trek past stands of fir and birch trees clutching the steep mountainsides, which loom like white-capped granite waves.
Beginning in the 1960s, ski resorts opened along the interstate corridor, such as Loon Mountain and Bretton Woods near Mount Washington, which brought more business to the store. Lahout's also forged partnerships with two young inventors who had created prototype equipment that allowed riders to "surf" on snow. They were Tom Sims and Jake Burton, pioneers of snowboarding.
In the 1980s, Joe handed the day-to-day running of the store over to his sons, Joe Jr., Ron, and Herb. (A daughter, Nina, is a Harvard- and Penn-educated U.N. lawyer.) The three brothers, the third generation of Lahouts to run the shop, expanded the business by opening seven new locations in Littleton and nearby Lincoln. A fourth-generation Littleton Lahout, Anthony, 27, has helped modernize the shop's brand and produced a recent short documentary about his grandfather.
The original location is still thriving, partly as a quaint family shrine and ski-history museum, bedecked with Lahout-clan mementos and skiing memorabilia. There are Joe's old wooden skis and the singlet with a burn hole in the shoulder worn by Miller when he crashed in a race in St. Anton, Austria, and skidded across the snow at velocity. Though the shop retains its country-store charm, upgraded wares now include such 21st-century gadgets as GoPro cameras.
Joe Lahout surveys the progress from his second-story porch over the front door. Inside the apartment where he was born, the family patriarch recalls his earlier days on the slopes.
"Well, I like to ski, period," he said. "The speed about it. The technique about it. You know? I skied all my life."
Hip-replacement surgery has left him diminished physically. He has not skied in some time. "I miss it."
A T-shirt on the racks at Lahout's celebrates the man whose passion for the sport still burns, captured in his motto emblazoned on the front: "Put the damn skis on and go like hell."
The original Lahout's is at 245 Union St., Littleton, N.H., just off I-93. There are seven additional stores in the vicinity, including the ski- and snowboard-outfitter in nearby Lincoln, at the foot of Loon Mountain.
For more information, go to lahouts.com.