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Historically, skate shops have been largely apolitical, save engagement with local government to erect or refurbish skateparks. At the apex of the Black Lives Matter movement and perhaps the most diverse representation of skateboarding in its history, shops have now become an important piece in not only activating the youth but helping them sustain their energy by connecting people through skateboarding.
The idea of a skate shop moonlighting as a community center—especially at a time of social distancing—may seem far fetched but it’s not dissimilar to the core function of core shops. Growing a skate scene is larger than increasing your buying audience and you don’t do it by selling products to people, you do it by getting people to invest in each other.
“Skate shops are the most crucial part of any skate community”
“Skate shops are the most crucial part of any skate community,” says Justin Henry (Quasi, Vans). “There isn’t a community without them. Growing up as a young skateboarder Embassy was the first thing to give me hope. I can’t speak on everyone’s shop experience but for mine, I noticed the shop was a melting pot for all races. Most of all, the events Embassy (Columbus, Ohio) would throw, showed me how special giving back to the community is and it was an early inspiration for how I think now.”
While navigating a new landscape and finding ways to provide contact-free transactions in order to survive, skate shops have rewired themselves to local communities and in new ways a bit foreign to the shops of old. By organizing peaceful protests, starting local charity initiatives, raising funds for nonprofits, registering voters, and putting a spotlight on activism, core shops have begun to expand what being a local hub means and what that could be going forward. With art shows and video premiers being difficult to host due to health guidelines, the scope of shops is evolving. In this dire time, it’s actually encouraging activism.
“A shop has a responsibility to the kids that hang out at it”
“A shop has a responsibility to the kids that hang out at it,” says Nowhere Fast (Beverly, Massachusetts) co-founder Kevin Leslie. “I remember spending all the time I could at the local shop when I was younger. It was inevitable that the people who worked there's opinions and whatnot would rub off on me and my friends so thinking back to that when our shop opened I tried being mindful of that. As we've been currently going through the largest civil rights movement of all time it is only right that we take a stance against all of the racist bullshit, have difficult/uncomfortable conversations, and call out whatever we can to try to set a good example. Complacency within skate culture has got to fucking go… fast!”
Kinetic Skateshop (Wilmington, Delaware) co-founder Ben Jones echoes Leslie’s sentiment, “I think we've finally reached a tipping point where you just can't justify being silent anymore. I've been a politically engaged person for a long time but most of that was outside of the shop. Forever it seemed like most skateboarders were apolitical, there just wasn't that overlap, but I think how terrible things have gotten and how they can't be swept under the rug anymore due to everyone having social media and phones with cameras has really galvanized a lot of people.”
When the first wave of global shutdowns was announced due to the spread of COVID-19 our natural instincts were to look at how it impacts our daily lives. Whether it was hoarding paper goods and PPE to seeking volunteerism due to work furloughs and other community initiatives, many reacted with urgency depending on the severity of transmission in their respective areas.
And then it set in that Coronavirus wasn’t going to subside in a week, a month or perhaps a year, especially without a vaccine or strategic shutdowns and the scope was larger and less personal.
As a culture, COVID-19’s effect on skateboarding was obvious and immediate. Coronavirus halted competitions, trips, gatherings, closed skateparks, slowed content, and even caused supply chain delays and in some instances, stopped production entirely. As major sports were delayed, the Olympics announced a postponement. Fewer high-fives and hugs in footage and more masks became prevalent.
Surprisingly, many hardgoods brands found sales rising, with NHS showing a marked improvement in March across all umbrella brands and many shops finding their eCommerce active as shelter-in-place orders were implemented. Gift card initiatives were enacted as a way to “pay it forward” and infuse core shops with cash during lean times. Unlike team sports or even one-on-one sports, skateboarding can be done solo and socially distanced... at least when the cameras were rolling.
Was this a product of stimulus checks and boosted unemployment wages or a symptom of skateboarding’s “fuck you” nature?
Quantifying or arguing either is largely a wasted endeavor, especially in a time where months feel like decades and larger societal issues outweigh commerce, vanity, and “fun.”. Surprisingly, social responsibility has become transformative for many skate shops throughout the US and Europe.
As the world woke up to the dire inequality problem in the United States specifically changed the conversation from, “How are we going to cope with quarantine?” to “How are we going to fix a broken system?” and many shops such as Kinetic, Nowhere Fast, and a grip of other community staples are responding by not only donating to charities but organizing protests and using their social channels to inform their followers about causes that reflect their tenets.
“Getting over 200 skateboarders together (most wearing masks) in Wilmington, Delaware to protest for racial justice isn't something I ever thought I'd see,” Jones says. “I've said it before but millennials and zoomers or whatever you want to call them are so tough and so smart. Unfortunately, they have been put through the ringer their whole lives—all they know are endless wars, racism, financial crashes, and terrorism. But I have a lot of faith in them and hope for the future because of it. This has opened the door to what we can do as a community, to what's acceptable for a shop or a company to do.
Until there’s a viable vaccine for Coronavirus, safety issues at public gatherings and indoors are concerns. Regardless of testing numbers, there are risks, so even the least impacted areas will need to be mindful of transmission until COVID-19 can be contained, treated, and prevented effectively. So while public protests have proven to be a powerful tool for change, they aren’t without consequence.
When the colder months arrive in most of the United States, there will be the added danger of Influenza, as well as a predicted second wave of the disease, plus the challenges of remaining active outdoors during cold weather. Of course, as many protesters will tell you, the extreme heat of summer has become a challenge, with many shops providing water for participants. Part of the solution is not only having voter registration materials in physical shops and included with orders but also fueling online registration and overall awareness via social media.
Skaters Vote is a non-profit offering voter registration resources to shops and individuals and perhaps their model can provide additional and safe channels to bolster voting registration and overall political awareness. Author Kyle Beachy has been involved with Skaters Vote since its inception and believes that the changing role of shops is less of a pivot and more of a declaration of their role in the community.
“We know that skate shops are more than retail outlets—for a lot of cities and towns they're the closest thing young skaters have to community centers,”
“We know that skate shops are more than retail outlets—for a lot of cities and towns they're the closest thing young skaters have to community centers,” Beachy explains. “The best shops realize this and do what they can to support the community that keeps the shops up and running. A good shop both responds to and shapes its community. So, it's a space for mutual engagement, and that, really, is the goal for getting Skaters Vote into shops' hands. The engagement is already there, the relationships are real. The tools that Skaters Vote provides give us ways to open up the conversation a little bit and invite more of the outside world into the world of the shop. Like, oh, hey, you know who decides whether or not the new park gets funding? This alderman, who's up for election on this date. At this point, conversation becomes action, skaters doing what we've always done, which is decide what rules matter and which of them need to change. I think the shops that are going to survive are the ones that understand that their role is bigger than retail.”
“We just can't let off of the gas”
“We just can't let off of the gas,” says Leslie. “We are going to continue making merch that we will donate the proceeds from so we funnel money to the right places. We also need to encourage learning. In a predominantly white area such as ours, learning is the most important thing we can do—learn to be the best ally you can be. Learn when you should call someone out for their behavior and the best/most effective way to do so. Essentially just not bury our heads in the sand and move on as a culture or scene in an area of the country such as ours just because it isn't staring us in the face all of the time because a shitload of people never have that luxury.”
“We need to do more to reach out to people who might not have thought skateboarding was for someone like them,” Jones says. “The more women the more people of color the more LGBTQ people the better, their voices will help guide us in doing what needs to be done to help them.’
Shut Skateboards pro “Black” Dave Willis adds, “Shops can do their part by donating proceeds to the appropriate funds and also shedding light on other Black-owned businesses and shops. It's a territory that needs to be fulfilled not just now, but always.”
*EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece intended to include Black shop owners but due to the timing, they were unable to contribute. A growing list of Black-owned shops, brands, media, and organizations compiled by Patrick Kigongo can be found here.
Read more about Patrick Kigongo and his work over on High Snobiety.
All illustrations: Cosme
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