What is a skateboard shop?

A cultural hub, capitalist outpost, the scene of my gravest sin?

What is a skateboard shop?

This is an extended version of a story that initially appeared in SBC Skateboard Vol. 24.1. You can look at that whole issue online here and subscribe to the mag here.

The obvious, business-registry-grade answer is that it’s a place to buy hard and soft skateboarding goods. However, as you know, if you’ve ever spent time in one, it’s not that simple. While the skateboard shop is a capitalist outpost, it also facilitates an activity centred around a sense of physical and spiritual expression that our simple modes of language cannot easily pin down. 

The pursuit of that expression, which is generally chased with friends, will commonly turn the skate shop into an invaluable cultural hub — that needs your constant patronage, as there is a very tangible dollar value attached to its continued existence. That is, in essence, the duality of our human existence. Our apex as a species is the ability to express ourselves creatively, but, more often than not, our ability to express ourselves creatively hinges on our capability to consume. 

To make defining the skateboard shop even more laborious, there are different ways for a skateboard shop to be. There are the “core” shops that cater to presumably “hardcore” skateboarders and tend to become community pillars. They do that by selling things, sure, but also by hosting events, creating a sense of pride and belonging among their patrons, and generally being a safe and welcoming third place for skaters to congregate.

That’s the skateboard shop is at its best, when it becomes a clubhouse, a command centre, a muster station after a late night or before the day of skateboarding begins. A place that instigates and nurtures, that’s waiting for you to spend your time in it — as well as your money. When the skateboard shop doesn’t do those things, when the cold, capitalist reality of the arrangement becomes clear, is when conflict inevitably ensues. 

Those shops — the Zumiez, West 49s, and other non-core outlet mall storefronts of the world — do serve a purpose, as bleak and sterile as they sometimes feel. They help keep many established skateboarding brands afloat by selling their products en masse to the suburban and curious, the beginners, casuals, and those simply looking to perfect that skater aesthetic — a cute look, to be sure. 

In the case of State Footwear, an independent skater-owned company, sometimes they offer even more. By immediately selling its product at Zumiez, State was able to get its foot in the door and brand off the ground because it opened itself up to a much broader consumer base than it would have access to otherwise, which allowed it to meet the minimum required order number from its factory, State’s founder and owner Kevin Furtado explained to Jenkem in a 2016 interview. Without significantly deep pockets, starting small by selling to core shops whose patrons tend to be more wary of new entries to the market was not a realistic option. 

However, there may have been a residual stigma to that approach. Despite a team once comprised of skaters like Ben Gore, Christian Maalouf, and Jordan Sanchez and with brand guidance from names like Josh Stewart and Joe Castrucci — all paragons of “core” at one time or another — the brand hasn't made much ground. At the time of writing this, State hasn't released a new line of shoes since summer 2022. In November 2023, they announced via an Instagram post that they'd return from their production hiatus in March 2024.

Those business struggles aren't surprising; skateboarding footwear is an increasingly hard market to break into if you're not already an established brand or significantly monied. But could that “mall shop” mark also be hard to scrub off? It’s an inherent ick that has been around for as long as I can remember and is at once deserved and shortsighted. Yes, these box and chain stores feel like cultural parasites making money hand-over-fist on the idea of skateboarding, a thing they likely do not care about beyond its use as a lens through which to sell products. However, to that same end, their efforts do help skate brands sustain themselves and they even serve as many young skaters’ introduction to the consumer side of skateboarding before they eventually find their way to core shops.

So, are they bad? Good? Somewhere in between?

It’s here in this confusion that I admit to one of my gravest sins. At 15 years old, the only skateboard shop in Castlegar, BC, where I lived at the time, was the corner of a local sporting goods store that had been designated a “skate shop.” Initially managed by local skateboarders, it was our community's little haven. A stage of cheap laminate flooring, dull halogen lights, and a shoe wall stuffed full of IPath Footwear. The space often felt as much ceremonial as it did commercial; our distant connection to the industry we pined to be a part of, the place we went to dress ourselves in the garb of "skater." Eventually, those charged with the skate shop's direction left, leaving the sporting goods store manager to take control. Soon, the shop team was disbanded (or just forgotten about), and prices soared. $100 for a pro board might not be unusual now, but in 2005, it felt criminal. A moral injury, at the least.

This place that was supposed to serve skateboarders, I believed, had become antagonistic toward them. That antagonism grew to be mutual. One afternoon, while skipping class with a friend, we made our way through the sporting goods store to what was left of its skateboarding goods section. I noticed that the wheel display case, which was usually locked, wasn’t, and there was no staff to be seen. I asked my friend to keep watch and plucked a set of Hubba Wheels in a fit of self-righteous shoplifting. 

Remember? Remember?

As we left the store, I felt like I’d done some small service in righting a world gone wrong. What worry would those charlatans have anyhow? They were charging such exorbitant prices that they likely wouldn’t even notice. From the scene of the petty crime, we went to the local skatepark, where I set up my hot new set of wheels. With time to sit and think as I loosened and tightened nuts, I started to grow uneasy with the reality of what I’d done. Some vague fealty to an estranged Christian god panged. Had I sinned against skateboarding itself?

Something, somewhere in the universe, thought so. Within an hour of skating, the wheels began to crumble. At first, I didn’t notice the pieces breaking off and scattering across the park (a stop-rock made of urethane? A horrible, near cannibalistic fate), but once I slammed into a flatbank without any apparent cause, I saw the debris strewn behind me and what was left of the wheels on my axles. 

I’d never seen that happen before, nor have I seen it since. While it was most likely due to a production error, the overall poor quality of the wheels, or, more realistically, a pox on anyone willing to mess with Hubba's retrograde horny-bro aesthetic, I took it as a sign. A lesson taught via smite. Thou shalt not steal, dickhead.

Still, it didn’t seem fair that I would be the one to get smote. I’d stolen because I was getting retribution against the dickhead. What was that omnipotent shadow governing the universe trying to tell me? Theft is not a worthy course of reprisal? The non-core skateboard shop is still a skateboard shop, and even if they are devoid of soul, they aren’t devoid of purpose and should be respected? Maybe I was overthinking it and the message was as direct as could be: no one, under any circumstance, should be skating Hubba Wheels.