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A Three-Decade Adventure for Sports Store

Dan Proulx sharpens a hockey skate at the Stateline Sports in West Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 27, 2013,. Employees at the store said they had turned on the machine at 9 a.m. that morning and had not turned it off all day.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Dan Proulx sharpens a hockey skate at the Stateline Sports in West Lebanon, N.H., on Dec. 27, 2013,. Employees at the store said they had turned on the machine at 9 a.m. that morning and had not turned it off all day. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

West Lebanon — There’s a lot to be said for having seen three decades of life. The average 30-year-old has likely enjoyed living in one location for an extended period for the first time and, among other things, has developed a cache of stable, reliable friends.

In that respect, Jon Damren is an average 30-year-old. Or, rather, he knows one well.

The co-founder of West Lebanon’s Stateline Sports saw his business turn 30 earlier this year. It’s been a mellow anniversary; Damren said recently his sporting goods store has had some sales to mark the occasion, “but not like a blowout promotion.”

Perhaps that’s because perspective comes with age.

For Damren, 58, and co-founder Bob Vanier, Stateline grew out of necessity. With the store for which both were working in 1982, Tom’s Toggery, closing with the imminent retirement of its owner, both men needed new jobs. Thus Stateline was born, and has held down its space on Bridge Street beside the Connecticut River ever since.

“Whenever you start anything on your own like this, there are so many factors that go into whether something works or not,” Damren said. “I think once we made it through the first two or three years, we started to feel more confident that we would be able to make a go of it.”

Damren and Vanier saw a potential opening when Tommy Keane decided to shut down the Toggery, a downtown Lebanon Mall staple next door to the long-since-defunct Woolworth’s store. Although the Toggery dealt in men’s and women’s clothing (Damren: “Sports coats, corduroys, jeans; we had a department called the Levi Loft, things like that”), it also sold team sports gear and some similar items.

The year 1983 also arrived in the wake of the recreational running boom of the 1970s. Having already developed good contacts in the sporting goods business, Damren and Vanier — an avid runner — found themselves with a good starting point for their idea.

“When we first started, our hope was to have a little running store,” Damren described. “Bob was a very successful runner; he ran track at UNH, was a distance runner. He won the Dartmouth Medical School marathon several times. Running was the foundation of the early years.

“Within a year or two, we began bringing in limited amounts of sporting goods from other sports. Over several years, we evolved into a wider range of products.”

Damren calls supplying team gear for Upper Valley recreation departments, schools and companies Stateline’s bedrock business. Footwear and ice hockey occupy the largest portions of Stateline’s space. Not everything has turned to instant gold over the year, however.

Hoping to catch the burgeoning trend in women’s athletics while also having a presence on West Lebanon’s Route 12A shopping strip, Damren and Vanier opened Stateline Sports for Women in the ’90s. The business drew some interest, but not enough to make two locations feasible, and the owners folded the women’s department into their longtime location after about five years.

“The problem with it was manufacturers hadn’t caught on quite as early,” Damren said. “There wasn’t enough product that was specifically oriented toward women at the time to offer a free-standing store like that.”

That would be a minor hiccup. The events of 2011, however, shook the business to its core.

Vanier remained a recreational runner as he grew older, usually pounding the pavement for 30 or 45 minutes after lunch, a schedule that “varied depending on what was going on,” Damren said. But on Valentine’s Day that year, Vanier’s run turned to tragedy when he collapsed and died at age 63. His death still has an influence on his business partner.

“Bob was really the true face of Stateline,” Damren said. “He was there all the time. His legacy lives on in the store now. There’s not a day that goes by that, at some point, that I don’t think about Bob or something he taught us or something that’s happened, just all the lessons we learned.”

If the response to Vanier’s passing wasn’t enough to show Damren of Stateline’s role in the community, the events of Tropical Storm Irene did.

On Aug. 29, 2011, overflow from the Connecticut’s tributaries created a flood that left six feet of water in the store’s basement, wiping out most of the inventory. Insurance didn’t cover what turned into a six-figure loss. Customers turned into friends at that point, helping the store clean up and re-open within 48 hours of being inundated.

“I think the short answer is no, because of our staff and the community support we got,” Damren said of the notion of closing the store because of the damage. “Basically, we were closed for only one day. … I can’t tell you how hard our people worked here to make that happen. It was hours and hours and hours of time, family and friends and customers.”

If Damren was ever surprised by the notion of his and Vanier’s business thriving after three decades, he isn’t anymore. Like the average 30-year-old, the company seems comfortable where it is and doing what it does.

“Our staff is so dedicated and so knowledgeable, I think the future looks good, because people now know what they’re going to get,” he said. “It’s the quality of the people that work here.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.