It’s no secret that, prior to the pandemic, one of the greatest things about a skateshop was its fixture as a hub for the community, serving as a place to hang out, talk shit, and ask for a pivot cup or spare bearing or something. But with the shutdowns, shops have to find new ways to keep their local skaters and new customers hyped on the shop and invested in their survival.Gary Smith, the owner of Vù Skate Shop in Baltimore, and Ben Jones, owner of Kinetic Skate Shop in Wilmington, just 60-minutes apart from one another, recently released a shop collaboration deck and shirt. Two shops working together on a joint promotion is extremely rare in the skate biz, even though skaters will collab with just about anything.
The ongoing pandemic has put skate shops in a weird place because, even though their storefronts are closed, they are still selling boards, more than ever before in some cases. There’s no set business model in place to weather a pandemic, but shops like Vù and Kinetic coming together to support one another gives one way forward for shops struggling to make it alone.
This is one of the few times we’ve seen shops collaborate like this, where did the idea come from?
Ben: Gary told me about this maybe three years ago. It was one of the coolest ideas I’ve ever heard. Especially since owning a skate shop has changed in the years that we’ve both been doing it. When we first started doing this, I feel like there were more rivalry between the shops. Now, we’re all friends and we’re all in the same fight together.
Gary: We actually had the idea before all this shit happened. We were going to have the Kinetic team come to Baltimore and then we would go Wilmington and do the same thing and we would put an edit out. But the edit and all that stuff obviously aren’t going to happen yet. I have to give Dan, from Theory Skate Shop, props because he brought this up to me a long long time ago. It didn’t work out, but, Kinetic is an hour from us, and splitting the Mason-Dixon line is something I’ve always wanted to do.
Why did you guys choose historical figures rather than famous skaters from your cities?
G: You think it woulda looked better if we had Bucky Lasek, Rodney Jones, & Jake Rupp?
And on the Delaware side, is that Bob Marley? What does he have to do with Deleware?
B: [laughs] He lived in Wilmington. Before he became big he lived here. So there’s a big Bob Marley festival here every year and Ziggy Marley comes and plays.
What’s it like right now running a skate shop in the age of corona. I have heard that hardgood sales are kind of booming right now, is that true?
B: Yeah, I mean, obviously our online business has grown a ton because of this. I’ve had a lot of people emailing me and I think a lot of people have time now and are like, “Wait a minute I don’t have to run around all day. I’ve always wanted to skateboard,” or, “I used to skateboard. I’ve been wanting to get back into it for years. I’m going to order a board.” So we’ve been selling a lot of already built completes. Also, a lot of people picking out their own stuff and we’re putting it together for them and either shipping it or them picking it up curbside.
G: Same deal. Skateboarding is perfect for quarantine because you need a flat surface and you need to stay away from each other anyway. You have kids out of school, parents trying to find something for their kids to do, and maybe the parents skated back in 1991. And also this pandemic hit right when the weather broke, not that we had a rough winter but nobody wants to be indoors now. The only things that are suffering in my store are all the hoodies and the t-shirts sitting there. Like damn nobody could come in here and try these on. Same for shoes.
To be honest, and I was afraid of this, but we’re all making money [laughs]. I don’t know much about politics at all, I didn’t really follow too much until now, but it seems like they’re just printing money with the stimulus checks and the unemployment money, so people are spending. People are afraid to stand next to each other but no afraid to spend money, right now. Skateboarding is on the come up until people run out of money. That’s what I think. Until we can’t print anymore [laughs]. I think we’re getting another stimulus check.
Do you feel like people are more inclined to help local shops now, too?
G: I feel like people have been putting their money where their mouth is, and shopping local, buying food from the restaurant near their house or a board from their local skate shop. I think people are realizing how important a skate shop is to a community. People, even me, didn’t realize how important we are until we closed and people needed a sheet of grip. You have to pre-plan now. If you could get to the shop during those hours for curbside or you have to buy it online and it won’t get there in time for a sesh. It’s not like some Uber driver is going to drop off a board at whatever parking lot you’re in.
I feel like that could be the new business model – “Uber Skates: we drop products off at the sesh.”
G: Hell yeah I’ll bring ya a sheet of Mob & a latte.
B: Aren’t we busy enough!
Is there any signs that hard goods might be selling faster than they are being produced?
B: Certain things for sure but my hope is that the manufacturers will be able to catch up soon.
G: For sure! I am having a really tough time getting Spitfire wheels – sorry, love you Jim & DLX – Thunder & Venture Trucks. Also NHS was shut down & you could only buy a case of Indy at a time.
You guys have both applied for the Corona related loans, so do you guys think the government has done enough to help true small businesses like yourself?
B: Definitely not. It’s so crazy that regular people get lectured about having all this money saved for emergencies but the second there is a disruption in business Carnival Cruise Lines needs a billion dollars. Why didn’t they save for a rainy day? The government should be putting more money in regular folks’ hands so they can make it through this.
We thought that when we applied for it we should have it in a week. Because that’s what they were saying. But it probably took 5 weeks. And there wasn’t anything saying that like you’ve applied and you’re going to get it. We applied and we didn’t hear anything, and it was like I guess we’re not getting it. Then, we got it five weeks later. So that was kinda weird.
“THE SECOND THERE IS A DISRUPTION IN BUSINESS CARNIVAL CRUISE LINES NEEDS A BILLION DOLLARS. WHY DIDN’T THEY SAVE FOR A RAINY DAY?”
Do you think that in a post-pandemic world we’ll see more shops teaming up and banding together to recoup some losses and more community building?
B: Nah, they’re not allowed. Because this is our thing [laughs].
G: This is it. We’ll sue anyone, Larry [laughs]. We won’t let any shops do this.
B: No, I think the more shops that work together the better. I feel like we’ve learned so much from each other and I want to give any knowledge I know to any other skate shop that’s doing it right.
What would say is the biggest threat to shops right now?
G: I will say, it’s a bummer when I get a restock of a brand in, and then I see that brand already put it on their Instagram at 10%, 15%, 20% off or they get free this or that if they buy it through them. I’m like damn I just got that in, and we’re almost the middle man at the point. That’s why it makes sense to do collabs and our own shop stuff that we could sell. I think that’s the biggest problem and it’s very frustrating.
Would there ever be a possibility that shops band together to not stock brands who undercut shop prices with direct to consumer?
G: That conversation has definitely been brought up at the water cooler with many different shop owners.
B: There are definitely one or two that deserve it, I get madder at the brands that cut us out of stuff completely or try and flex on us because they are the hot brand of the moment, but getting it organized would be really tough.
Besides collabs, what do you think shops could do together?
G: Send customers to each other. For instance, if Vù is out of stock on something & Josh at Pure skateshop has it, let the customers know. Or start a shop union & make sure the skate companies are doing what’s best for skating & our industry.
B: I think it would be really sick if Kinetic and Vù could do a tour together make a video of it and make a point of visiting other shops during the trip. I don’t know about Gary, but I’ll probably have to wait a few years until my son is old enough to go on it.
I know community outreach is super important to local shops, but how do you keep the community stoked on the shop when people can’t come into the shop?
G: That’s a really tough one to answer. We’ll have to try & keep the hype by inspiring through social media. making sure to answer costumers’ questions and comments and engaging with them.
B: It’s definitely tough especially since it looks like it’s going to be a long time before we can do bigger events. And yeah, we do as much as we can through social media, reposting clips answering.
I think that’s one of the things that’s the hardest. I like every facet of my job, but taking away the comradery of someone coming in and getting a board and talking about skating sucks. It’s a big part of what’s good about this job.
What do you think is next for a skate shop?
G: God, this question. I got an email from Baltimore county, all summer activities are now online. What if that’s the future? I can’t teach a fucking skateboarding camp online. So I don’t know how to answer your question, it’s scary. I think it comes down to hustle – or motivation and work ethic. If you sit around and wait for the change you’re going to go out of business. Also if you don’t have the community backing you at this point I don’t think you’ll be in business after this.
B: Going back to what Gary said about people trying to support local businesses, you know like, “This local restaurant that I love is a part of my life I’m going to try to order from them a couple of times a month while this is going on so they’re still around.” I don’t know when we’re going to have a treatment or have a vaccine or whatever. I don’t know how this reopening is going to go, and if it’s going to go away or blow up again and we’ll have to shut down. But I just hope as we come out of these people remember a little bit of solidarity with your fellow people, and what got you through this. You know, spending a few extra bucks your local coffee shop instead of Starbucks, or a couple of extra bucks at a place that isn’t a chain restaurant. And I hope people carry that through and remember.
Is there a website or chat group where shop owners could talk to each other and connect? Like an e-harmony for shop owners?
B: There is some stuff on Instagram, but I have a rotating crew I talk to and text regularly.
G: Yeah, bitteroldmen.com or www.the90swerebetter.com [laughs].
Interview by: Larry Lanza
Photos courtesy of Vù Skate Shop, Kinetic Skateboarding, and Tyler J. Richardson
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