Home Of Sniagrab Going Out Of Business -- Osborn & Ulland Falls Victim To Big Sporting-Goods Chains

Osborn & Ulland, home of the Sniagrab and outfitter of Northwest athletes for more than 50 years, will go out of business early next month.

The former chain, now reduced to a single store at Third Avenue and Virginia Street, said that competition from large national chains had hurt sales for years and that a bad Christmas season was the final blow.

"We got stuck in the middle ground," said Hans Ulland, son of founder Olav Ulland. "We weren't big enough to compete with (the national chains), but we weren't able to get small enough fast enough to be considered a small, specialty store and survive."

The store is liquidating all remaining inventory - including a few unused relics such as Head 360 skis from the mid '60s - and expects the sale to go through the first few days of April. The closing date wasn't picked at random - it's the Final Four weekend, and O&U is hoping the basketball tournament will attract lots of sports enthusiasts to its store.

At its peak in the mid 1980s, O&U had five stores in Washington and two in Oregon. But since early this decade, it closed stores in Tacoma, Southcenter, Northgate, Bellevue Square and Beaverton, Ore., as mall rates became too expensive.

O&U became locally famous for the Sniagrab ("bargains" spelled backward), the preseason ski-equipment sale held every fall since the 1950s. By the 1960s, the Sniagrab was as celebrated an annual event, in some circles, as the Seafair hydroplane races.

Outside O&U's main store at Second Avenue and Seneca Street, bargain hunters waited for hours, sometimes days, for the doors to open, camping out in sleeping bags and fortified with soda pop, radios and newspapers. So many people were on hand that, during a Sniagrab in the late 1960s, an inebriated passerby mistook the gathering for a Vietnam War protest.

A crowd of 5,000 wasn't unusual, even though that meant the last in line wouldn't get into the store until four hours after opening. But once inside, shoppers could find great buys, such as a $200 pair of skis for $100. Eventually, the event was moved off-site, and the last real Sniagrab was held two years ago, although in-store promotions have continued.

The store was founded in 1941 by the elder Ulland, a ski champion and former U.S. Olympic coach, and Scott Osborn, a local slalom champion. They got financial assistance from Eddie Bauer, the founder of the eponymous outdoor-clothing retailer. Several years later, Hal Kihlman, a well-known local ski instructor, joined O&U.

Remaining are five employees, down from 60 or 70 a decade ago, including Ulland, company President Yosh Nakagawa, and his son, Mark.

"It's kind of sad to see," said Ulland, 32, who isn't sure of his post-O&U employment plans. "But you can't go on losing money forever."