As an avid skateboarding tourist, I suppose that I might look at skate shops a little differently than most skaters would. In my humble little world of constant exploration and adventure, skate shops are absolutely critical to the success of my endeavors. I look at them much like the average citizen might look at a gas station; as a convenient place to stop, rest, recharge, to get directions relating to where I might find the local skateparks and skate spots, as well as being the best place to find insight and enlightenment about what’s going on, where it’s happening, and who’s hot in the local skate scene. Their importance really cannot be overstated, and there’s nobody else that can really do the job. The local skate shop, when seen through the eyes of a roving journalist, can single-handedly make (or break) the local skate scene. Turns out, they can make or break skate scenes just as easily through the eyes of the everyday kid.
I’m a relative newcomer to the desert southwest. In my brief time here, I haven’t had the luxury of having the spare time to go check out my local skate shop scene in much detail. And why would I, when I have a great online skate shop (in the form of Mike Hirsch at SoCal Skateshop) accessible to me, 24/7, with the very best of the best product selection and customer service anywhere? Simply put, I really had no incentive at all to go to any local skate shop, for any reason. For all intents and purposes, I was largely living the life of a happy (but isolated) skateboarding hermit, a solitary homebody, and a retired industry head, peacefully sequestered in a new and foreign city.
After Agenda, though, everything changed. Back in January [of 2017], I attended a spontaneous retail roundtable with my publisher at the time, Michael Brooke of Concrete Wave Magazine. At that roundtable, the retailers were looking to us for answers, although I have no idea why in the hell they’d look to us for anything of the sort. We’re not BRA (Board Retailers Association) over here, and we’re certainly not IASC (International Association of Skateboard Companies). Those are the industry groups that could really do something, and do something significant, to help the cause. As a magazine… and a fairly small, niche magazine at that… we’re helplessly powerless in comparison.
But I sensed that the reason they were coming to us, was that they really had no other option on the table. My assumption is that we were probably the very last industry contingent that was willing to sit down, pay attention, and actively listen to them. If we could do nothing else at all, then we could definitely do that. That roundtable set the stage for the rest of my year. From then on, I set out to visit as many skate shops as I could, in order to study the issues affecting skate shops firsthand, through the eyes of a fairly typical (albeit aged) skateboarder.
Skate shops are critical industry infrastructure… and trust me on this, you have never heard, and might never hear, anyone else in this industry refer to skate shops as “critical industry infrastructure”, but it’s still true nonetheless… that develops, nurtures, and promotes positive human connections. Yes, their primary practical purpose might be to sell you a skateboard; that’s how they subsidize their larger mission, by selling you stuff at a [pathetically small] profit. But “selling you stuff” is a pretty tiny part of their overall mission, in the grand scheme of things. Their real pride and purpose is to be the anchor of, and an advocate for, their local skate scenes. They promote participation. And in doing so, they cultivate and propagate a viable market; a viable market that, if all goes well and all goes right, ultimately becomes a consumer market that, in turn, supports the shop and its outreach activities with their purchases. The practical purpose of selling stuff sanctions the noble pursuit of cultivating community, and vice versa. If that circle of propagating, promoting, participating, and profit is healthy, then it grows. If it’s not, then it dies.
This is the core philosophy that makes core, brick-and-mortar skate shops that “critical infrastructure” that I noted above. And as a traveling skater, I can confirm that there is no other paradigm… outside of the local skateboard club (when and where they might exist)… that is willing, able, and capable of doing the job. The mall store will never care enough about the local skate scene to know jack shit about it. Or at least they haven’t, historically speaking. And social media and the internet are pretty useless when you’re looking for an obscure and little-known skate spot that might well be hidden under a bridge somewhere, and you need to know all about it right here, and right now.
Nope, that’s what makes the brick-and-mortar so crucial; that local knowledge and homegrown wisdom is absolutely priceless. And nothing else in the world can really replace it.
Throughout the course of the past year, I have grudgingly evolved from being a steadfast supporter of the core, brick-and-mortar skate shop, to an adversarial advocate of the core, brick-and-mortar skate shop. Yes, this industry needs to do much more than it’s doing to support this critical industry infrastructure… because if it fails, skate scenes worldwide will turn into a no-mans-land-level Armageddon, and our industry as we know it will suffer a collapse of epic proportions. You may laugh at that, but be careful buddy: if you do not heed this advice, then the consequences might be pretty severe. You do not want me to have the last laugh over this one, fellas.
I’ve seen firsthand what has happened to local skate scenes out on the road when their local shops die. Simply put: the scenes disintegrate, because the glue that holds people together evaporates. The glue that holds those communities together fails. And no amount of social media networking can make up for personal persuasion, or one-on-one enthusiasm exchange.
The simple associations from my tired, traveling eyes, are pretty easy to see in all their clarity. Good shops, good scenes. Great shops, great scenes. No shops? No scenes. No scenes? No grassroots skateboarding excitement and engagement. No excitement and engagement? No skateboarding.
It’s really that simple. And that’s what I saw, over and over again, on tour this summer.
Skate shops, by and large, see things like the internet, Amazon, Zumiez, Tilly’s, brands that sell direct-to-consumer, and other core skate shops, as threats. That’s precisely where they’re misguided. They are not threats; they are alternatives. That’s the key distinction that everybody’s missing here.
Yes, the industry needs to do more to help the local brick-and-mortar survive and thrive. We all know that. And as we talk more about this issue, we’ll be challenging the industry to do just that, and putting ideas on the table in regards to how that could be done, done effectively, and done reasonably easily.
But the shops themselves are not blameless in this equation. All of the problems they face cannot be summed up in a laundry-list of external “threats”. Some of the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the shops, themselves. If we can help shops recognize… and, fix… their own failings by looking at them, and talking about them, from the customers’ point of view, then we’ve probably accomplished something pretty important.
There is no “Skate Shop 101” handbook out there for skate shop owners. That’s part of the problem: everyone that has ever started a brick-and-mortar skate shop has had to learn every single bleedin’ thing the hardest way imaginable, via trial and error (mostly error).
Instead of making 32-page booklets about how skaters drink their own pee if they buy a blank skateboard, maybe IASC and BRA could do their own industry a really big favor, and make a 32 page booklet on how to answer the phone properly and professionally; treat people with simple respect; actively include them into their local skate scenes; and throw inexpensive, fun, all-inclusive enthusiast events that encourage skaters of all ages, colors, races, genders, religions, sizes, and skill levels to get together, and have fun skating. Maybe we could even throw in a few paragraphs about the importance of not being jaded, apathetic, or complacent in the face of adversity, especially when the simple solutions can be found with a little bit of time, effort, and creativity. Maybe the simple solution to all of life’s problems, at the end of the day, is to simply learn how to care about the customer again. Maybe our solution, as an industry, should be caring about the shop again enough to open the dialogue, and help them along.
The best part is that none of these things cost much to do, in terms of dollars spent. Many of them are totally free. It just takes a little bit of time, enthusiastic energy, and caring initiative. That’s all.
Positive change can happen. Fantasies can become realities. Truly great skate shops do exist. One of my local shops… Sidewalk Surfer, over in Scottsdale… just celebrated their 40th Anniversary last month. Think about that for a minute: they have weathered every single downturn in the popularity of skateboarding, every single recession, every single war, and every emerging technology that has come along in the last forty years. Including rollerblades, razor scooters, the internet, e-commerce, and antisocial media.
How in the hell do they do it? A great storefront, amazing merchandising, a huge selection of whatever the customers want (including street boards, cruiser boards, longboards, electric longboards, and old-school reissues), friendly and helpful employees, bulletproof customer service, and great grassroots engagement; that’s how they do it. They love their customers, and their customers absolutely love them in return. Their customers love them so much that they will happily pay a few dollars more to buy something at Sidewalk Surfer than anywhere else, and they’re proud to do so. I know this, because a bunch of their customers told me this directly. It’s not rocket science. It’s really simple stuff, but done exceptionally well.
If we can take some of that real-world experience and wisdom, from real-word retail success stories, and give it to shops that might be struggling on some of these fronts, then we just might be able to do something to save our retail infrastructure, our industry, and our grassroots skate scenes.
These things are not comfortable to talk about. They’re definitely not going to make me any friends anytime soon. I fully expect that the hate mail that this essay generates will be seethingly entertaining, as it usually is. But the sad fact remains that these issues really do exist, these things really do happen, and that our “industry leaders”… if they were really “leaders” at all… would be doing the same exact thing that we here at Everything Skateboarding have decided to do: step up, stand tall, stand strong, do the hard research, open our mouths, attack these things head-on, and put the problems and the solutions squarely on the table where anyone and everyone can see them.
We will not progress one iota as an industry if we constantly run away from the realities, stick our heads up our asses, and wish all of our problems away. They’re not going anywhere until we resolve to do something, do something meaningful, and do something useful to correct them. If nobody is willing to write Skate Retailing 101, then we’ll do it ourselves, one essay and one article at a time. We are, after all, The Media. As The Media, we should be advocates for, and agents of, positive change. That’s our job.
And we need to do our job, do it well, and do it right, just like anybody else.
Best regards, as always,
Bud Stratford, Executive Director, Everything Skateboarding Magazine