Two couples take over at iconic store
When Rita Kenny teamed up with Geof and Diane Childs to buy Winthrop Mountain Sports from founder Tom Kimbrell in 1997, Eric Bjornsen was just turning 6 years old.
The outdoor clothing and gear store has been familiar territory for Bjornsen ever since, and is about to become more so.
As of this week, Bjornsen is one of four new co-owners of the downtown retail landmark. He and his wife, Marine, have purchased the business along with husband-and-wife Eric Purpus and Kelly Bolinger, who are valley residents and longtime friends of the Bjornsen family. Eric and Marine — both international super-stars in Nordic skiing events — just moved to the valley from Alaska.
It’s a transaction that was 23 years in the making but seems like it was destined. If you’re looking for a story about Methow Valley karma, serendipity and a web of deeply rooted community connections, this is it.
Tom Kimbrell, legendary local guide and climber, launched Winthrop Mountain Sports in 1980. His wife, Linda, founded the Methow Valley Nordic Team, which over the years has featured athletes-turned-coaches such as Scott Johnston, Sam Naney, Laura McCabe and Leslie Hall. It produced world-class competitors Eric and Sadie Bjornsen and Brian Gregg, all Olympians (as were Hall and McCabe). Methow Valley-raised biathletes Casey Smith and Kelsey Dickinson have also excelled in U.S. competition and in the international arena.
Kenny, a Pittsburgh native and theater major, looked west and migrated to Seattle, where she worked in the sheet metal industry. Looking for a change of pace, she went to work for Outward Bound, at locations around the west, and eventually became the Methow Valley director for that organization. Kenny went to work for Kimbrell at Winthrop Mountain Sports in 1993.
The person who originally interviewed Kenny for an Outward Bound position was Geof Childs. He and Diane both worked for Outward Bound, and also eventually ended up in the Methow Valley for good. Geof is a noted climber and author of “Stone Palaces,” a collection of stories and essays about climbing. He was a partner with Tom Kimbrell in a mountain guide service. Diane had been the recreational director at Wilson Ranch, and had worked at the former Mazama outlet of Winthrop Mountain Sports.
Kimbrell approached the three — by then all entrenched locals — about buying the store in 1997.
The downtown store location had been the site of a dress shop and private residence before it was converted to retail. Kimbrell made some additions, and the succeeding owners also undertook two major remodels. The contractor for those additions was Tom Bjornsen. Tom and Mary Bjornsen are the parents of Eric and Sadie Bjornsen.
Nordic team connection
The new owners quickly became ardent supporters of the Methow Valley Nordic Team, and launched an equipment rental program to support the hundreds of kids who have come through the program. The ski team is “the centerpiece of our community involvement,” Kenny said.
“We wanted to be more than a retail store,” Kenny said in an interview last week. “We wanted to help the community grow and recreation grow.”
“We wanted to make sure there were no obstacles to helping the kids any way we can,” Diane Childs said in the same interview.
Running the store was never a slam dunk. “There were all kinds of challenges and uncertainties,” Childs said. Their vision was always to provide the best equipment at affordable prices, and to build strong connections to the community. Local support has been vital, Kenny and Childs said.
Kenny and the Childs decided it was time to step away from the business after 23 years of ownership. “We wanted to stop before we lost energy and interest,” Kenny said. One of the first things they did after getting a broker, was email Eric and Marine Bjornsen in Alaska. Things happened quickly after that.
The new owners
Eric Purpus and Kelly Bolinger’s longstanding relationship with the valley includes their marriage at Freestone Inn. While living in the Seattle area, they decided to build a house in the valley and hired a contractor they had come to know: Tom Bjornsen. Purpus, Bolinger, and Tom and Mary Bjornsen became close friends, as did the Bjornsen kids by extension.
Purpus and Bolinger are both from the Midwest. She earned an undergraduate degree in science at the University of Oregon. She eventually moved to Seattle, where she and Purpus met, to become a research scientist at the University of Washington. Her expertise in fluorescent microscopes has taken her around the world.
Purpus’ educational path finished at the University of Washington with a double degree in English and math. He started grad school at the University of Oregon, but decided becoming a Ph.D. wasn’t his dream. Urged by a friend, Purpus submitted his resume to a Seattle-area startup. He’s been there since, and the Bellevue-based company, Apptio, now has more than 1,000 employees.
Mary Bjornsen urged the couple to move to the valley permanently. Purpus and Bolinger took the plunge and bought another house: a home in Edelweiss that was built and owned by Tom and Mary Bjornsen, who were downsizing. Purpus and Bolinger have now been here full-time for several years, and Purpus works remotely. They have an 11-year-old daughter, Josie.
Then there’s the running. Lots of running. Purpus became a competitive ultradistance runner more than 10 years ago. He finished 7th overall in this year’s Race for the Methow 50-kilometer event.
The other new owners
Erik Bjornsen and Marine Bjornsen sat in the shade at the house where Eric grew up — now owned by Purpus and Bolinger, who sat across from them — for an interview about the purchase of Winthrop Mountain Sports. The Bjornsens only recently moved to the valley after living in Anchorage, Alaska, for several years. They met there, and were married — at Freestone Inn — in 2018.
Eric, at age 29, just this year retired from more than a decade of extraordinarily successful competition in Nordic skiing as a member of the U.S. Ski Team.
He won several national championships and was often the top American finisher on the intensely competitive European race circuit. He twice represented the U.S. in the Olympics, in 2014 and 2018, along with his sister Sadie.
Although retired from the international scene, Eric said he will still find races to compete in.
Marine grew up in France, and competed for the French National Biathlon Team for more than 10 years — winning many national titles and taking part in the Biathlon World Cup. She moved to Alaska in her early 20s, where she competed on the NCAA circuit for the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA), three times being named All-American. All that conditioning paid off elsewhere: She won the women’s division of a marathon in Alaska in 2019.
Marine moved up to coaching the UAA Nordic team, and was named Nordic Coach of the Year by the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association. She earned a bachelor’s degree in management from UAA and a master’s degree in management from the Grenoble Business School.
“Winthrop Mountain Sports was a big part of my life,” Eric Bjornsen said. He helped his dad with remodeling the store. On visits to the Methow, he said, “going to the shop was part of going home.”
Bjornsen said he has always known that he would return to the Methow Valley. The opportunity to buy the store, he said, is “the perfect place at the right time. We love it. Opportunities arise for a reason.”
When Kenny sent an email about selling the store, Bjornsen said he figured she was trying to entice him. “Right away, I took the bait,” he said. Marine is convinced Kenny was firmly planting the idea. Mary Bjornsen joined in the encouragement.
Eric and Marine will oversee daily operations, but Purpus and Bolinger will also be actively involved in managing the store. “It’s more than an investment,” Purpus said. “We felt strongly about supporting the community.”
“The store is a pillar of the community,” Bolinger said. “It’s more than just a store on the street, and we don’t want that to change.”
Kenny and Childs will help with the transition.
“We have the same values as they do,” Eric said of Kenny and Childs. “They see in us someone who would carry that on.” Eric said the new owners won’t change much at the familiarly close-quartered store. “We’ll keep it cozy,” he said.
“Everyone knows we’re going to keep the tradition,” Bjornsen said. “I’m all in about Winthrop Mountain Sports. You can find me there.”