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Michael Kennedy: Last store standing: Down, but not out in Squaw Valley

Other Voices
Michael Kennedy

Nestled among the empty, dark, lifeless shops in Olympic Village is one store still open for business.

I recently spoke with Mark Calhoun, owner of Alice’s Mountain Market, about why and how he remains open during this pandemic that has drained our popular ski Village of all tourists and would-be shoppers. What I learned from Mr. Calhoun about the history of his market and his business philosophy is nothing short of remarkable, lessons worthy of any Ivy League Business School case study.

“Our history dates back to 1983 when we opened our first of three stores in Tahoe City,” says Calhoun.

“We opened our second store in Truckee in 1990, and the third store in North Shore in 1994-95. We consolidated all three stores into one and moved into Squaw Valley the first year the Village was open, naming the store after my sister, Alice.”

How did you respond to the initial news about the coronavirus?

“The first thing we did was encourage our J1 employees (A J-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa issued by the United States to research scholars, professors and exchange visitors participating in programs that promote cultural exchange, especially to obtain medical or business training within the U.S.) to fly home while planes were still flying. We kept our core staff members on board and rallied them around our central driving purpose: Alice’s Mountain Market provides a community service. I’m proud to say we haven’t had to let anyone go. Our team agrees, we need to remain open for people sheltering in Squaw Valley.”

You’re the only store in the Village still open during this unprecedented crisis. There are no tourists. The parking lot is empty. The mountain is closed. How have you managed to stay open and how do you keep your staff motivated?

“Our customer count has dropped significantly, to be sure. We’re down more than 25% in the month of March, which is typically our busiest month of the year. Interestingly, our customer purchases (the number of items purchased per customer) have moved in the opposite direction: up over 30%! With regard to our staff’s motivation? First, they’re happy to be among the employed. Second, their customer tips have increased dramatically.”

Where are your customers coming from?

“At the moment there are at least 17 condos being lived in here in the Village. Typically there are only 4 condos being lived in this time of the year. Apparently, some families have chosen to shelter here in Squaw Valley and we want to accommodate them.”

What inspires you to provide this community service when everything around you suggests you should close up shop as all the other merchants have done?

“My family and I love Squaw Valley and the North Tahoe region. We love our community and feel a strong sense of obligation to give back. We’ve been through tough times before and we not only survived, but thrived, when a lot of people thought the Village was down for the count.”

The Flood of 1997

Please elaborate. What happened?

“Back on New Year’s Day, 1997, our Valley experienced a flood caused by a subtropical storm with heavy rainfall in the Sierra Nevada. It was so severe it shut the entire Valley down. No one could enter or leave Squaw Valley for days. Ultimately, the flood water subsided. We made the necessary renovations and repairs and business returned to normal.”

Do you have any special message you’d like to leave as food for thought with our readers?

“We will get through this.”

“My hope is we become something more, something better, as a result of this crisis. I believe each of us will have a new and greater relationship with nature and with each other. I’m convinced we will become better citizens because of this pandemic. We have an opportunity to be better, right? It’s a choice, isn’t it? We’ll continue to do our part in providing a community service and serving as a bright light of hope and perseverance for other merchants struggling during these dark times.”

To learn more about Alice’s Mountain Market please visit https://www.alicesmountainmarket.com

Michael Kennedy, a Squaw Valley resident, is a professional photographer. He can be reached at Michael.Kennedy999@gmail.com.


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