Meet Travis Kerr
Looked at one way, Travis Kerr is the reason I am sporting a full-arm cast through the heart of winter. Looked at another way, he is why at age forty I am tackling the mountains for the first time and rekindling that feeling I loved so much as a kid on a skateboard. If you are not interested in becoming a snowboarder, don’t cross the threshold of Travis Kerr’s new shop - Splinters - at the base of the Sugarbush Access Road in Warren, Vermont. Once you enter and scan your eyes across the beautiful wood finishes of the walls and striking artwork of the boards for sale, you are going to want to come back. Once you talk to Travis, you are going to be hooked.
I met Travis when, at the request of my two young sons, our whole family decided we would learn to snowboard together. Splinters was the shop closest to us, and when we told Travis we were brand new and looking to learn his face lit up as it only can with a person who loves something so much he wants to share it with everyone. My boys were being fitted for season rentals, and they loved Travis immediately. On our most recent drive up from New Jersey we played a Vermont-themed version of the alphabet game. When we got to the letter T, my youngest son called out, “Travis!” Not trees, but Travis, the guy who set them up the first time, the guy who gave them their first pointers. As he had them try on boots and helmets, my wife and I wandered around the store.
Check Out Splinters Board Shop
The aesthetics of Splinters Board Shop are beautiful, and seem to connect the vivid graphics of the boards, the vibrant colors of helmets and goggles back to the landscape for which they have been designed. Everything from the floorboards to the ceiling hints at a design process and a mission that go far beyond selling boards, boots, and apparel. Each detail reveals a space that is equal parts church and commerce - sure he is selling stuff, but he is also sharing reverence for the outdoors and a sport to which he has dedicated his life.
The building, which is positioned perfectly at the turnoff from Route 100 onto the Access Road, was not always the beautiful space it is today. “I’m not going to lie,” he told me recently, “there were times along the way that I didn’t know if this was even going to happen. From trying to get the property, to looking for financing, getting shut down by the banks, working with the town for permits, struggling with our vendors to get inventory, the whole process was difficult.” To handle the stress, Travis resorted to lists. He set up a big dry erase board with 20-30 tasks that needed to get done and just knocked them out one by one. After two months that list was a lot shorter, and he was a lot less stressed. Still, the transition came with the help of a whole cast of characters.
One key component was his business partner Aaron Guilfoyle, whose mountain expertise and general contracting business were both a perfect fit. “Erik Reisner, of Mad River Valley Real Estate, pretty much held my hand through the whole process over two years,” Travis explained to me when we spoke, “finding a way for me to work around the prohibitive down payment of a traditional purchase.” His accountant, Doug Hall, served as a financial mentor helping him to ensure everything was square with the state and feds. David Olenick reviewed the real estate contracts pro bono. Most of the additional labor came from three friends and fellow snowboarders, Urris White, Rich Picarelli, and Trevor Borelli. Beside Travis and Aaron they knocked down walls, raised the ceiling, laid flooring, and completely reshaped the space.
“We went with a natural wood grain theme,” Travis explains, “fitting for Splinters. Aaron sourced all of our materials from local sawmills; we purchased most our supplies at the local hardware and lumber supply, and used an electrician that lives in town.” That emphasis on keeping things local is reflected in his final assessment of the renovation. “It was an amazing community effort,” he says with his characteristically huge grin, “it almost seemed like magic. Whenever we needed to lift something heavy, a car would pull into the lot. A lot of snowboarders and skiers came together to make this a reality.”
The Path to Vermont
All of this, the love of snowboarding, the love of the environment, the sense of community and hard work were forged on a small piece of wilderness in New Jersey, The Sourland Mountain Preserve. From the small town of Amwell, Travis had easy access to open space one can’t always find in the Garden State.
“I worked at Peacock’s, our local general store, starting when I was eleven years old, I think,” he explained to me. “Just don’t tell the department of labor,” he added with a chuckle. His dad would drop him off at five o’clock in the morning on weekends and he would then assemble the newspapers and make coffee for $4.50/hour. At age twelve, with the money from that job, he bought his first snowboard and boots and turned his life in the direction that would eventually bring him to Vermont. When I asked him how he ended up with such a strong passion for the sport, he smiles and his eyes grow momentarily distant. He turns his eyes back to me and tells the sort of story you expect out of someone who had dedicated his life to riding and exposing others to the joys of it.
“My dad took me to his buddy’s farm where he had a big hill,” he begins and already I find myself nodding along in appreciation of a good story. “They’d hang out at the top of the hill by the barn sipping on some refreshments, and I’d just send it, no idea how to snowboard, but I was going to figure it out.” That mentality resonates with the whole process of opening the shop —fighting for financing, figuring out permits, gaining the brands he wanted for inventory. All of it was new, but he was going to figure it out. “When I got to the bottom they’d drive down and pick me up. Eventually I could get to the bottom without falling, and even built a little jump over a creek.” He pauses and a grin transforms itself into laughter at the memory. “I fell in the creek though,” he laughs. “They laughed.” It was two years of backyard snowboarding before he ever saw a chairlift or went to an actual ski area through his high school ski/ride club.
All he wanted to do was be a professional snowboarder and compete in the X-Games. That passion led him to Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont and a snowboard instructor job at Sugarbush Resort. There he instructed for two years, worked terrain park staff for a bit maintaining the jumps and rails on hill, but then wiggled his way into the local snowboard shop, Pure Snowboard. Upon seeing that side of the industry, he knew he had found his dream job. He loved helping customers and talking about gear. He could answer any question thrown at him because he had tested everything new before it was released and would travel to Denver and Vegas trade shows to see what was on the horizon. After toying around with gigs with manufactures and somes sales work, he wanted to be back on the shop floor helping other snowboarders.
Do a Little Shopping
A lot of the brands Splinters carries are brands Travis has worked with for over a decade because they offer a quality product at a fair price and are industry leaders for that reason. For Splinters, he succeeded in adding industry giants, Burton & Volcom, as well. The selection offers customers a wide array of choices that Travis helps taylor to personal riding style and skill level. “We also added some smaller accessory brands like Gnarly Clothing, Crabgrab, and Tite Belts,” he adds, “because they are all small snowboarder owned companies that specialize in one thing. For us we like to support rider-owned independent companies whenever possible. That includes a small, locally owned, accessory brand called SideSurfers as well as the powerhouse Burton. When you break it down, both of those companies are owned by snowboarders in Vermont, and that’s something we take a lot of pride in.”
I think everyone has had a bad retail experience where an eager sales person follows you around and pushes product on you; that’s just not how Splinters does things. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were scheduled for our first lesson and needed helmets. Timing was tight, so Travis opened an hour early to help us out. He could have exploited our lack of knowledge and excitement to make a few extra bucks, but instead set us both up with entry-level helmets and goggles at a great price.
“That is what all shops should be like,” Travis says, “especially at resort locations. A chill environment where you can stop in and lace up your boots on the way to the hill, or stop down after and say what’s up. Obviously we’re in the business of selling things, but we’ve created a comfortable space and we want it to be a center for our community, a meeting place. We’re here to guide you toward what you need. If you don’t need anything you should still stop in and just hang out, it’s cool.”
Go for the product, come back for the culture.
Two days on the slopes, followed by six weeks in a long-arm cast, and all I can think is that I can’t wait to get back on a board. In large part, I have Travis Kerr to thank for that. I think years from now, my boys and I will look back at their childhoods like Travis looks at his.
“For me,” he reminisces “the culture is a part of who I am, and has been since I was a kid. I’m a part of the generation that watched Bart Simpson skateboarding through his school halls yelling ‘Cowabunga Dude!’ When I was ten, I went to the first ever Summer X-Games in Providence, RI and watched people like Tony Hawk, Andy MacDonald, and Matt Hoffman fly out of a halfpipe, like literally fly. Whether it be snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, BMX, it’s all the same culture. I think it comes from a creative, almost artistic place.” And there may be the perspective that sets this shop apart from those just pushing product.
“All these sports are a method of personal expression,” he continues, “a way to show your style. Whether you want to ride in the trees, race down mogul runs, or hit rails and jumps in the terrain park, it’s all good, there is no right or wrong way to snowboard, that is the root of our culture. I think that is why a lot of snowboarders also play music, or paint, or take photos; it’s another outlet for their artistic eye. That is why here at the shop we are proud to highlight some of that local artwork and photography as well as display some vintage and collectable snowboards from the 80’s and 90’s to show some history that got us here today.”
With board and boots rented from Splinters, my eldest son is falling in love with the sport. I am sure his brother will be following close behind. This past weekend, I spent hours helping him connect his turns down the hill on the western edge of our property. I ran alongside of him offering encouragement and then trudged back up after each run just listening to him talk about everything that popped into that ten-year old brain. It was magic. It will make a good story the next time I am in Splinters.