Johnstons open to selling historic Ruthie’s Run before retirement
LAKE PLACID — Cathy and Wayne Johnston have been in business for a long time, and they’re ready to retire. That means closing their Main Street shop, Ruthie’s Run, and selling the building.
After leaving the corporate world more than 30 years ago, the Johnstons moved to this area to take on the challenge of running a small, mom-and-pop retail store.
Ruthie’s Run at 2415 Main St. wasn’t — and isn’t — just any store, however. It carries a legacy few other businesses share.
Ruthie’s Run, then called Thaire’s Ski Shop, is believed to be the first ski shop in North America. It was established in 1926 by Thaire Bryant and William Hovey, who grew the business from a small section of a hardware store into a full-fledged storefront. Ruth Prime bought the store in the late 1960s and carried on that legacy under a new name, Ruthie’s Run, named after her favorite ski trail in Aspen. When the Johnstons purchased the store from Prime in 1984, they took on that legacy, too.
With help from Peppy Fobare, a Saranac Laker who worked at Ruthie’s Run under Prime, the transition was successful. Now, after 95 years of serving the community and its visitors — 37 of those years under the Johnstons — Ruthie’s Run is expected to close.
The Johnstons are retiring once their building is sold, and though they’ve been toying with the idea of keeping the store’s website up and running, their retirement will mark the end of this store’s rich legacy. It isn’t clear yet when exactly the store will be closing, but the Johnstons are holding a retirement sale now, and they’re selling most of their stock.
The decision to close the store wasn’t easy, according to Cathy and Wayne. They hoped that a buyer interested in the business would emerge, or that an entrepreneur would approach them with an offer. But ultimately, no one has stepped forward to take over the business.
“The only people to contact us was a liquidator,” Cathy said.
Though one might think that the closure of Ruthie’s Run was another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, their customers kept the business flourishing last year, even when the store was forced to temporarily close. Wayne said Ruthie’s Run did well in 2020, though doing well required them to work a lot of seven-day work weeks. The Johnstons have been wanting to retire for a few years, and the economic pressures brought by the pandemic just reinforced their decision to retire.
“We would’ve loved to see it continue and do whatever we could to have it continue, but at the same time, the world changes, life changes,” Cathy said.
“We still own the business and the name,” Wayne added. “We could still help somebody. It probably wouldn’t be in this physical space. But if somebody reads this article and says, ‘Hey, I’d like to do that.’ Come talk to us, and soon.
“We’ve probably held on longer than we should have … in hopes of finding that somebody,” he said. “It was (a hard decision), but we’re kind of committed, now.”
“At some point, you’re just ready,” Cathy said.
“This will leave a hole,” Wayne said later. “In us, as well. Life goes on, and we’re only allotted so much time. It’s a matter of making some choices about how you’re going to spend that time.”
The Johnstons plan to stay in Lake Placid. Cathy said they’re not the moving-to-Florida type. The Johnstons are both native New Yorkers. Cathy is from Plattsburgh, and Wayne is from Long Island. They originally moved here after living in North Carolina and working in the textile and chemical dye industries.
“We’ll get to enjoy Lake Placid instead of working,” Cathy said.
Saying goodbye to Ruthie’s Run also means saying goodbye to its community of repeat customers — locals, second-homeowners and visiting ski enthusiasts alike. The couple does hope that people they’ve met through the store will still give them a call once in a while.
Ruthie’s Run has been a mainstay in many people’s lives. They’ve sold clothes and skiwear for gifts, for proms, weddings and other special occasions. Cathy remembers one customer who died last year — Harry Allan Jacobs Jr., a prominent Wall Street investment firm executive who spent his childhood summers in Lake Placid and had close ties to the area — who used to visit each Christmas to shop for his loved ones.
“After his wife died, he would come in every September, pull up a stool and sit at the counter with his Christmas list, and we would go through and do all of his Christmas shopping,” she said. “I would gift wrap it, he’d give me all of the addresses and every year I would ship it to all of the people at Thanksgiving. He was a character.”
The store was a life-saver for a lot of people during Christmastime especially.
“One of the things I always loved was watching people bunch into each other in the store. This was before Christmas, not so much the week after,” Wayne said.
“It was like Old Home Week for a lot of guys,” Cathy said. “It was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It’s 4 p.m. Christmas Eve and we’re about to close, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m not last (to shop) this year.'”
Main Street has changed a lot over the years, and the reasons why people visit have changed. Although Lake Placid used to have a seasonal economy, that, too, has shifted. The usual “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall seem to get shorter and shorter.
Staying in business, and staying relevant over generations, takes a lot of work. Asked what advice they have for other business owners, the Johnstons shared a number of tips.
Number one: Keep in touch with your repeat customers, regardless of whether they live here full-time.
“One of the advantages Lake Placid has is the enormous volume of people who come through here. You have — at least we have — an extensive list of what we call repeat customers. They may not live here, but they’re attached to Lake Placid,” Wayne said. “People will say your easiest next sale is to an existing customer. You really want to develop that mix of new people coming by. You may snag 1 or 2% of those people and try to make them a regular customer. But you’ve got to keep communicating with the people who you know are already predisposed to like what you have. I think it is important to focus on building that repeat business. Some of that you can have in quiet times. Otherwise, you’re just chasing that peak all the time.”
“People think that we’re just a tourist store. But probably 60% of our business, at least, is local customers or second homeowners,” Cathy added.
Keeping your inventory current and continuing to evolve is important, too.
“You have to stay current,” Cathy said.
For example, when the Johnstons start took over the business, they didn’t have a computer and kept track of things like inventory by hand. When computers became more accessible, Wayne programmed the store’s point-of-sale system.
“I think the next generation has to stay current in social media … and COVID made that just more important, because there are a lot of people who are not comfortable coming in a store, still,” she said.
Business owners in Lake Placid, especially those in the hospitality and retail industries, frequently struggle to retain and attract employees. The Johnstons said finding good staff members and investing in them is crucial.
“Finding good staff, good people is one of the hardest things,” Wayne said. “If you start with the notion that you’re generous and you’re willing to invest in people, you find a few, anyway. Take care of them, because they will, in turn, allow you to do the other things, like keep that face for those regular customers.”
Cathy said most of the staff at Ruthie’s Run, prior to the pandemic, had been working at the store for 15 years or more. And save money where you can. There will always be lean times.
“Lots of discipline,” Wayne said.
The Johnstons have one word for Ruthie’s Run supporters: Thanks.
“We’re going to miss you,” Cathy said.
‘Own a business’ conference held through Saturday
The North Country Center for Businesses in Transition is hosting the virtual conference, “Small Communities. Big Opportunities: Own a North Country Business,” from Wednesday, Feb. 24 to Saturday, Feb. 27. It is designed to help entrepreneurs find small business owners who want to sell their businesses before they retire. Registration is free of charge and open to the public at https://www.northcountryopportunities.com.