Summertime is officially here! You can already hear the sounds of kids trembling in their desks at summer school, thinking more about quarterpipes than quadratic equations. It’s time to break out all of those shaped boards, limited collab sneakers and goofy-looking hats and hit the streets!
Remember, though, when you’re thinking about what your new summer kit is going to look like you should consider buying gear from your local shop first.
Yes, the internet is full of deals and massive clearance warehouses, but the local skate shop is still a lynchpin in skate culture that we can’t afford to lose.
It’s tempting (and really easy, I know) to click on that “30% Everything Must Go” email from a big Inland Empire warehouse with a fancy website. But that warehouse really isn’t interested in skateboarding unless you’re giving them your credit card info and signing up for their mailing list. Without core shops, skateboarding is just another vertical for sporting goods stores – no sense of community remains.
Pat Smith, owner of Coda Skateboards, pointed out that where big business meets the skate industry, failure is common.
“CCS and Foot Locker are doing ok, aren’t they? Oh wait, they’re not,” he wrote in an email.
In 2008, Foot Locker bought CCS and tried to expand the mailorder operation into a mall chain. The plan tanked, and CCS nearly disappeared into oblivion before being rescued by a buyout from Daddies Board Shop in Portland, Oregon.
Pat Smith also skates for Pitcrew, a shop in Frederick, Maryland, famous for its longevity as much as it is for its iconic hoodies. The shop, which serves a massive area including DC, Baltimore and Southern Pennsylvania, has been going strong since 1994. He said there’s a level of personal connection between shop owners and skateboarding that can’t be replaced.
“Pitcrew has been around [so long] because skateboarding is important to them,” Smith said. “When core shops go, there will not be skateboarding. Just some team sport with a piece of wood and plastic wheels.”
Without the support of core skate shops, skateboarding would consist only of those brands with the money and infrastructure to fulfill giant chain-store orders. Sure, maybe a smaller brand can pick up the occasional $100,000 preorder from a chain store if it’s already in demand, but it’s difficult to get much demand without some sort of grassroots hype. The scary end-result of this system would be the winnowing of skate companies to only the brands big enough to have their logos on boards at Wal-Mart and Sports Authority.
Gary Smith, owner of Vu Skateshop in Baltimore, Maryland, has seen the shifts in the industry from both sides. He experienced the early-00s boom in professional skating, and his shop weathered the recession in the US since 2008. But he’s not all doom-and-gloom about the state of the skate industry.
Skateboarding is shrinking similarly to the way it did in the early 90s, he told me, but with a significant difference: it’s now socially acceptable. Add to that the growing diversity in the skate community and the democratizing effect of the internet, and you can see that skateboarding has a long way to go before it “dies” again.
“Skateboarding has a long way to go before it ‘dies’ again”
“I do see the same trends unfolding again. We had a surge in skater-owned companies breaking away from ‘huge’ companies like Powell and Vision and doing their own brands like Blind, Menace, 101 & many other amazing companies,” he said. “Now pros are doing it all over again: leaving their long time sponsors and starting brands like 3D, Mother, and Fucking Awesome just to name a few. I love it.”
But as someone who was a part of the skate industry when pro skaters earned less than your average McDonalds employee and were expected to give it up by their early 20s, he doesn’t begrudge the industry’s need to grow. If skate companies are going to be expected to provide a salary and benefits in addition to product and travel, they have to make hard decisions about their business model.
“I’d love to put all the blame on the companies who sell products to the mall & internet chains, but I can’t, you know why? You got to sell out to eat out,” he said. “If I owned a board company and my local shop picked up 5 decks, we aren’t going to be able to afford ads and to go to China to film a video. But if the mall and internet chain picked up 5,000 decks then we can film a video, pay the team, and eat good. I get it.”
“The small skater owned companies like Politic, Scumco and all the Theories brands are helping shops like mine separate ourselves from the mall chain stores”
He said the new wave of independent brands and small upstarts is helping to change the business landscape in favor of the local. Like record stores and other boutique businesses, a skate shop can create an identity by choosing to support specific brands (and by supporting local and regional brands that in turn support more local and regional skaters).
“The small skater owned companies like Politic, Scumco and all the Theories brands are helping shops like mine separate ourselves from the mall chain stores,” he said. “I hope we can all eat out together.”
But we’re not just talking business here, core shops offer their locals a tangible connection to the skate community at large. Sure, skate videos these days are announced via hashtag and watched on YouTube and the SLAP Forum has become a global couch on which skaters can share clips and talk shit to each other, but the skate shop is the place where little kids learn how to act (and how not to act) on a skateboard.
“Without a true local shop, you’ve got kids just being reared by malls and what they read online about skating.”
Example: Baker2G was a rad video, but it helped inspire a bunch of screaming suburban jerk-offs who did their damnedest to ruin every session for everyone. If it weren’t for the older dudes at the shops and skateparks, who else would tell all the Knox Godoy wannabes to chill out? Who would encourage kids to respect skate spots, act cool to keep security or cops pacified, and not spit on the ground in the middle of the goddamn skatepark? Certainly not the guy at Pacsun who “used to skate” for a semester in junior high. Certainly not streetwear chain dot com.
Chris Bacon, who manages Edge of the World (formerly Board of Missoula) in Missoula, Montana, knows this first-hand. Missoula has a population of about 100,000 people and a very tight-knit skate scene, which Bacon has been instrumental in developing since he started working at Board of Missoula in the early 90s.
“Our state has lots of Native American Reservations, tiny farming and ranching towns, and tons of space in between everything. Our role as shops is not only to foster the skate scene by trying to connect skaters from all these small towns and rural areas, but also to show them what a great tool skateboarding can be,” he said. Bacon said that has had a positive effect for a lot of Montanan kids, who, due to the size of the state, can easily feel isolated.
“Without our shops, I honestly don’t think as many kids would make it out of ‘The Hometown Trap’ that we have all seen happen.”
“There is a big tendency to get tied up in the bad stuff out here; 6 months of winter coupled with poor economics and large distances make it real inviting to go down some dark paths. Most of the kids that have discovered skateboarding have used it to help keep them sane during the winter months and helped grow their sense of self esteem and self confidence,” he said. “Without our shops, I honestly don’t think as many kids would make it out of ‘The Hometown Trap’ that we have all seen happen.”
“Shops have a way of becoming the meeting place and the sounding board for a communities scene. The shop isn’t just a retail outlet; it’s a meeting of the minds… of like minds. Having a good shop in your town gives the skaters a chance to really feel like they are part of the skateboard industry, not just on the outside looking in.”
Gary Smith says it can be frustrating to watch business slip away to big-box retailers, but he’s got a good method for showing the locals how important his shop is to the scene. “Kids come in the shop all the time with decks, wheels, etcetera, that they got online or the mall, and then skate our free ramp. It kills me because we carry the same shit these kids come in skating. I tell them to go skate the malls or internets free ramp,” he said. “They look at me, puzzled.”
“Is paying a few bucks more for a pair of shoes or a deck that outrageous given all the shop has done for the scene?”
Chris Bacon says skaters need to re-identify the core skateshop as a sort of community center, rather than a place to go if you need a board in less time than it will take to ship from California.
“Without a true local shop, you’ve got kids just being reared by malls and what they read online about skating. What happens when none of these big guys put on events in your town?
Is paying a few bucks more for a pair of shoes or a deck that outrageous given all the shop has done for the scene?”