In 1928, an industrious Scandinavian teen crossed the ocean from Norway to America. Farmhand by trade, Alfred Berge bounced around the Pacific Northwest taking odd carpentry jobs before settling down permanently in unpresuming Oregon.
The ballad of Alfred Berg, founder of what is now Berg’s Ski and Snowboard Shop in Eugene, could be a Gilded Age, Horatio Alger plot: A hardworking young man with a mind full of middle-class dreams bids ha det bra (“goodbye” in Norwegian) to life on the family farm and seeks his fortune. Slowly but surely, his humble roadside venture grows to become a local landmark with a reputation that spans the state.
Berge snipped the “e” off the end of his last name and opened Berg’s Shell Station in 1940, on the northwest edge of downtown Eugene. Fifteen years and many gainful real estate investments later, Berg suddenly itched to run his own ski shop.
Alfred Berg sat down at breakfast across the table from his sons, Dale and Paul, on a warm summer morning in 1955 and said something along the lines of, “Boys, I think we should open a ski shop.”
Dale Berg, 15 at the time, remembers feeling a little stunned; 12-year-old Paul was gung-ho. Months later, Berg’s Nordic Ski Shop opened for business in the small house beside Berg’s Shell Station.
From that day on, the two brothers ran the ski shop with help from their mother, Emma, while their father managed the service station.
“I learned from my dad it’s important to love what you do and enjoy your business,” Dale Berg says. “I learned that it’s about people helping people.”
Since the shop opened 62 years ago, America’s retail landscape has grown crowded with faceless national chain stores and convenient online shopping websites. This makes Berg’s, at the corner of 13th and Lawrence, a stalwart beacon of entrepreneurial hope, signifying that mom-and-pop businesses still have a place in the modern world.
Berg’s Shell Station closed in 1975. In the years that followed, Berg’s Nordic Ski Shop expanded and, in 1987, changed the sign out front to read as it does today: Berg’s Ski and Snowboard Shop.
Paul Berg died seven years ago, leaving Dale alone at the helm.
As Dale Berg describes it, it’s about playing to your strengths. Being a small-scale, brick-and-mortar operation has its advantages, especially when it comes to selling winter sportswear; fitting customers into ski and snowboard equipment is an art form.
Many years ago, Berg spent days questing for just the right ski helmet. He’d narrowed his selection down to 28 identical helmets, all precisely the same model, size, and color.
A less experienced shopper would simply have grabbed the nearest one. Berg, however, knew that the internal padding in ski helmets is hand-glued on the factory floor. He also knew that the slightest misfit can make for a helmet that doesn’t absorb impact as effectively and may even bring on headaches.
Miniscule variations along with narrow margins of error mean there’s no decent substitute for ski shop specialists. Shopping online for proper ski or snowboard equipment is in many cases just too risky, Berg says. “I can’t imagine it. In this industry, a size 10 is not a size 10 is not a size 10.”
Buying ski equipment wasn’t always such an individualized experience, he adds. When he picked up skiing in the ’50s, manufacturers hadn’t innovated much in the 1,300 years since the practice was invented. As a result, there were far fewer options, and the sport was more difficult to learn and enjoy.
Berg’s first set of skis were 7-feet long, far too big for a scrawny first-timer. The clerk half-heartedly assured him he would grow into them.
Now in his 70s, he only recently hung up his skis.
Despite a lifetime on the slopes and working in his family’s ski shop, “I’m still learning new stuff every day,” Berg says. “This is an industry where things are changing all the time.”
As much as the products on the shelf have changed and evolved over the years, Berg’s Ski Shop has the lived-in feel a friend’s basement rumpus room in the 1980s. There’s a bowl of Dum Dums and Tootsie Pops on every countertop. A pool table in the snowboard shop invites you to make yourself at home. The bright red shag carpet has been there for at least 25 years, Berg guesses, and on game day the Ducks are on the fitting room TV facing a soft plaid sofa.
Berg admits he was skeptical about the TV at first, but now “it’s nice,” he says. “It gives people something to talk about. It helps them unwind.”
After all, the object—aside from bringing in enough money to keep the business afloat—is to pave the way for more converts to discover the joy of skiing and snowboarding. The best way to do that is to make people feel welcome.
In addition to complementary ski and snowboard waxing, Berg’s runs weekend shuttles to Hoodoo Ski Area, Willamette Pass, Mount Bachelor, and Mount Hood Meadows throughout the ski season.
367 W 13th Ave.