Rites of Passage
The glue that holds every town and city’s skate scene together. Legendary skate writer Ben Powell pays tribute to the humble brick-and-mortar skate store and the transformational power of that first visit.
Words: Ben Powell
Images: Joseph Marshall
There is a certain experience that is essential to the journey of anyone who gets into skateboarding. It is the point at which a person transforms from being “someone who owns a skateboard” to “a skateboarder.” Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or skill set, this transformation takes place almost exclusively in a brick-and-mortar store: The skate shop.
As someone who has been a wide-eyed newbie himself, I know exactly the feeling of pushing open the sticker-stained doors of my local shop for the first time, clutching onto my first set up with only a vague idea of what I was getting myself into. It was a mixture of trepidation and excitement at once. I breathed in the aroma of new decks, urethane, and freshly peeled griptape glue, and peered in awe at the array of logos, shoes, skateboards, and merch of a world I longed to be a part of. That first visit never leaves you. Countless business plans have been drawn up, fueled by memories of mythical first visits just like mine and the desire to recreate them as rites of passage to potential new members.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Gaz of Cirencester’s Decimal store. “I was bricking it on my first ever visit to Kong, [Coventry’s core skate store of the late 1990s]. It was like nowhere I’d ever been before: Low ceilings, stickers covering every available space, more product than Aladdin’s cave. It had a profound effect on me. I ended up going to uni in the same city, working in a skate store for five years and then, after returning to Cirencester, deciding to take the plunge and open up Decimal. I’ve never regretted it. It’s not easy, but being that focal point for the scene, being real and supporting the community, is its own reward.”
Not too long ago, before the digital takeover, the skate store was the only available entry point to skate culture. Beyond the introduction to the hardware itself, skate stores also acted as a gateway to a vast universe of related music, film, and art. The local skate shop provided exposure to related creative fields: Obscure California punk tracks or rare hip-hop remixes might have acted as the soundtrack while you browsed. These spaces opened you up to a whole secret world of like-minded people and influences, allowing individuals to become members of a global community.
Today, a few decades on, anyone with a WiFi connection can find out what Max Palmer had for breakfast should they be so inclined, but the cultural significance of the physical skate store has not diminished. Still, these oases link individuals to the larger skate universe. They preserve local history and heritage, act as points of contact for sponsored skateboarding opportunities, and organize contests that enrich communities. It’s no coincidence that towns and cities with the most progressive skate facilities, lively, proactive scenes, and heavily-supported local outreach programs all have a skate store at the heart of their community in common.
Glenn Field, owner of Beatsworkin in Devon’s town Barnstaple remarks: “An early realization about the role we played came in the form of a letter from the landlord of the local pub whose kid had been really struggling with life. I had taken this kid under my wing through interactions in the store and, unbeknownst to me, had played a role in guiding his life in a positive direction. That’s the reality of the situation, a skate store brings that to the community – getting people started with skating, stoking people out, providing space for social enrichment, and the occasional life-changing encounter. This is happening in towns all across the world. In a time when youth services have been scrapped and mental health issues are massive, I truly believe that the skate store has a butterfly effect on the community around it in a hugely positive manner.”
The current global skateboard boom is one of the few positive aspects of the pandemic. Skateboarding is seeing its biggest growth in two decades. At the same time, stores with a direct involvement in their communities seem to be more resilient against the takeover of the internet’s convenience. A skate shop isn’t just a place to shop, it also functions as a teaching space, support bubble, second home, or just somewhere to chill and talk shit. As Sibs Roberts of Edinburgh’s Focus skate store puts it: “Covid has made skate stores even more important than they were before. With the lack of human contact we’ve all had to endure in the last year, having a physical space to meet up with people is super important in maintaining a community.”
People like Roberts ensure that skateboarding culture continues and that its knowledge is passed on. Skate stores provide the backdrop for this generational exchange, which is why their importance should not be overlooked. That first visit never leaves you. You may have entered your local store as a nervous first-timer, but you exited it as a skateboarder.
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