How a Massachusetts Skate Shop Is Coping with a Pandemic.

With the realization setting in that not only are we all—at least rational people—will be spending more time in quarantine and practicing social distancing, it also provides time to figure out how COVID-19 is impacting our ecosystems and how we can support things while we’re on indefinite pause. Jenkem recently published a piece by Ian Browning that did an excellent job getting in the weeds about how Coronavirus is impacting skateboarding’s supply chain, including some shop talk but as sand is being plowed over once pristine California skateparks, I wanted to focus this week’s letter on an individual shop.

I landed (mentally) in Beverly, MA at the semi-recently opened shop Nowhere Fast, owned by Kevin Leslie and Steve Hollett. My affinity for New England shops and being in love with Massachusetts led me there and allowed me to feel OK about being nostalgic because every Northeast shop tells a sliver of skateboarding’s vital story. Everyone is aware that a skate shop is so difficult to operate that it’s essentially a non-profit for often unappreciative patrons. It’s really fucked. Trying to run a shop in suburban New England presents the challenges of weather, seasonal depression, and almost geographic isolation, even if your town has spots and people to skate them. That’s the beauty of it as it’s the greatest fuck you when they succeed.

In speaking with Kevin for roughly two hours, we talked a lot of shit, dug deep into our memory banks, and mostly avoided the present because who really wants to be reminded of this shit? It’s awful and of course, safety outweighs our hobbies but also, hobbies are our lifeblood and skate shops can take on more weight than just a place of commerce. For the average consumer of anything, buying is often about price, for skateboarders, it’s about a vibe. Two shops could have the same deck selection but if one is called Gary’s Grind and run by some dude with a ponytail, you’re not copping shit there. Ever. 

OK, you don’t need any more words from me mansplaining what a skate shop is so I’ll wrap this up with a nudge. If you have extra cash to put towards a shop, please do and if not, that’s obviously cool. We’re all aware that the needs of healthcare workers and the overall safety of everyone in this are paramount but we’re also skateboarders, so here’s me talking to one who happens to own a shop.

What’s your history with skate shops?

KEVIN LESLIE: Years ago I worked for a shop called Eastern Boarder, they’re a local chain. They had bikes, snowboards, and skateboarders and met my core group of friends through the shop. They kind of picked up where Colosseum left off. We had a manager named Mark who just killed it with video content and organized Sunday sessions, so the local scene really blossomed from that shop and eventually, we did some independent videos with my friends Jesse Ciulla and Ryan Oppedisano, including Swank 2 and Swank 3. Unfortunately Eastern Boarder Danvers, Massachusetts had to close.

Where we’re situated in New England, there isn’t really a snow scene because we’re roughly two-hours from any mountains so the sales from snow products were less than stellar. Also, skateboarding as an industry was taking a nosedive so the shop just didn’t have the foot traffic to support the square footage and it had to close. You have to understand that being over an hour north of Boston is its own scene. Orchard has their thing and it’s really dialed in but up here, that Eastern Boarder shop really unified the scene. It was an alienating scenario—no one really knew what to do. There were some shops that popped up but they were kind of kooky and you almost begrudgingly supported them. I was basically like going to Zumiez or the Vans store to get griptape when nothing else was open or I didn’t feel like driving to the city. We’d end up driving to Orchard to support them but it would end up eating half of your day getting there with traffic.

We had a little indoor pop-up park that was organized by some locals and myself that Cons helped out with and we started throwing around the idea of starting a shop. A few years later my buddy from Eastern Boarder, Steve Hollett (now my partner in the shop) reached out to me. He’s originally from the North Shore. He proposed doing a shop in Beverly and we thought it could work with the right location and funding. It was really just a pipedream but honestly, I wouldn’t even call it a “dream” because shops are necessities. If you grew up before online, shops are the place to set up a board, talk shit, and they’re so essential to your local scene. I started thinking about names and the overall image. Steve knew a landlord who had a space opening up on the main street in Beverly and it just happened from there. 

Before working at Eastern Boarder, what was your local?

There was actually another shop in Danvers called Something Else. I guess I started going there early in my skating… sometime in the late-’90s.

Wow, I didn’t know that shop was still there by then. I used to go there in the early-90s when Roger Bagley and Charlie Wilkins worked there. They had some weird “deal” where you got credit for every ten dollars you spent or something, so if you bought a board you’d get a free magazine and some stickers for free which was sick. On Sundays, they’d have ramps and a manny pad in the back parking lot. It became a meet up for a lot of kids north of Boston.

I was young but yeah, I remember going in there and they had fuckin’ incense, rollerblades, and the only shoe account they had was Globe. A few dudes worked there who were really eclectic and really awesome. They helped my dad figure out the transitions to build a mini ramp in our backyard. They were really rad. There was another shop called Identity in Portsmouth, New Hampshire with the best dude at the helm, Rice, but that was a bit of a drive. We always floated around because there wasn’t a go-to. There was some really kooky shop called H.O.B.s which stood for House of Boards. Then Eastern Boarder opened and it really changed things.

In a way, Eastern Boarder was a lot like the Newbury Comics of skating—just this big place that had everything and was cool but also a chain. And like you said, I’d drive anywhere as a teenager to just feel connected to a scene, rather than just buy a board. 

Exactly, it’s almost hard to explain now because online has dominated for so long. A good shop can be as essential as having a really good local spot. I think the skate scene around here is really difficult for people to wrap their heads around. It’s unique to almost anywhere else I’ve been in the country. Pre-Orchard, there would be one key hub and that was Coliseum for a minute and I think Eastern Boarder never got that shine because they were a chain and the aesthetic was a bit “family-friendly” for what skating really stood for at the time—not talking shit at all but I think that was part of why it never gets shouted out for being as important as it was.

A lot of people don’t realize that it was the bike and later snowboard and ski shops that really brought in skating to the Northeast. You needed the seasonal income, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s when winters were even harsher. How hard is it making it through the winter season for you?

We’re just coming out of our first winter and that’s why going right into the Coronavirus situation is extra gnarly. As soon as spring hit everything closed until further notice. Another unique aspect of where we’re situated, there isn’t an indoor park within an hour of us. There’s a park in Rye, New Hampshire that’s by far the best in the area but you have to wear a helmet. So, if you want to skate through the winter here, there’s a lot of factors and you better be ready to drive, pay for gas, pay for food, pay for the session, just to stay skating. Not having anything close to us made it really difficult. Before I opened the shop, I was getting flowed from some companies and I didn’t do any other winter sports because I didn’t want to get hurt—I wanted to skate. I’d drive everywhere with my friends all winter but you come to find out that’s not the norm at all. Most people don’t do that as much as we were willing to.

If we’re going to make it through another winter, we have to continue to find ways to bring people in and that’s where having art shows has been really helpful for us. We were doing a show a month and getting local breweries to supply beer when we could. Luckily for us, the art scene in Beverly is incredible so we can get some traffic and sell small editions of T-Shirts at the shows. The shows became a really solid boost and kept us afloat in the winter. Heading into it again, we need to really figure out an indoor park or something, so people can buy a board and immediately use it. We really want to service our scene and let people skate all year. Selfishly, I want a spot that I can skate as well. Doing the shop really doesn’t give me time to skate as much.

The thing I noticed about your shop is how image-forward it is and how thought out the presentation is. Can you tell me about what formed the aesthetic?

The image is everything to me. From skating for as long as I have, I have a very formed idea of what I like. From working at Eastern Boarder, I’d always remember unpacking and stocking inventory and you see so many uninspired graphics and they all just bleed together. One thing that stood out was a shirt they did that had a drawing of a bunch of skulls that said, “All the Evil Shit.” They eventually moved on from that type of stuff and I always wanted it to come back because it really resonated with me. They were moving to be more family-friendly which obviously isn’t my vibe.

Steve and I both like dark shit, we’re super into horror movies, metal, punk, I’m really into ‘80s post-punk and goth. I love all that and I wanted our image to be a combination of those things we love. It was a little bit of a realization when we were naming the place. We were thinking, ‘Fuck, what fits this area?’ We quickly moved away from that because what you see around here is a lot of nautical imagery—we’re on the water, some of the first cities in America, so it’s really fisherman heavy and that doesn't make sense for skateboarding. But we’re a two-minute drive from Salem, MA, the Halloween capital of the world and it got us thinking about darker imagery. Originally I was set on the name Ritual but then I felt it might be too in that direction. We’re not selling fuckin essential oils and tarot cards and shit and we don’t buy into all that.

I always think about what stores I’m intrigued by. If I’m just cruising around, what would make me go into a store and I’m always drawn to vague names. I remember being in New York, seeing some people lined up at a bar, going up and seeing the name “No Fun.” No big sign, it didn’t say bar, just “No Fun.” I’m really drawn to ambiguous names like that and that really informed the name. We were going to call it Nowhere but as we kept saying it over, saying “Meet me a Nowhere” just didn’t roll off the tongue. I’ve always been a big Smiths fan, well before Morrissey being a racist piece of shit [laughs] and I’ve had the song title “Nowhere Fast” tattooed on me for years, I even used it for a part, so I proposed it to Steve. I really tried to detach it from the Smiths and more about how people historically view skateboarders—drifting around, drinking beers, and not taking anything but skateboarding seriously. It really fit.

It’s also very apropos New England skating in general. As global as skating has become, it’s probably easier to come up in fuckin’ Lyon, France than the suburbs of Massachusetts, even if there are spots comparable to any major city. Honestly, there are still only a few pros in the history of skating who made it but never moved to California, Jahmal Williams and Westgate being some of the only ones ever, it’s psycho.

Absolutely, I was talking to my buddy about this the other day. At one point 3-5 of the best pros on the planet were from around here, but I never saw PJ Ladd out skating in Boston, I never saw Ryan Gallant. I never saw Jereme Rogers or Eli Reed because they all moved. Boston’s almost a weird combination of being in New York and Los Angeles at the same time because you still need to drive and then you have the weather but we have a million ledges and amazing spots, that said it’s still hard to have a skate career here. You have to really want it to even just be a mediocre skateboarder here. [Laughs]

What’s your day-to-day with the shop now that you’re essentially shut down?

I’ll get forwarded online orders and I also handle a lot of them through DMs on Instagram. Then I kind of map out my route based on all the locations. The DMs are definitely a lot more back-and-forth but you get everything dialed in and it usually works out. We have shipping and in-store pickup but the reality is that while you can come to pick your order up, I usually end up driving the shit to you. I pack orders at the shop, get everything shipped, then I start to do deliveries. We’ve been trying to limit contact as much as possible to be safe of course, and then when the delivery orders are ready, I pick the furthest order out and work my way back. I call or DM them a picture of where the box is and when they respond I keep it moving. Wake up to the next Groundhog Day and do it again. I definitely feel like Bill Murray... On nice days, I try to get orders done early so I can go skate in an empty parking lot. 

Also, I’m spending even more time on the shop branded product. It’s a shop by necessity but I’ve always viewed it as a brand and with margins being so important right now, it’s motivation to make a really strong product. For example, our first shop boards were a custom shape that I tested out myself and worked hard to get right with Pennswood. It definitely helps when we sell a shop board vs. a brand board. I love all the brands we carry but it feels like we need to do what we can to stay open. 

And you’re putting in the work to make things unique so you should enjoy that higher margin. It’s not like you’re just throwing a logo on everything to make money and that stands out. 

I love interacting with customers and that’s what makes it worth it. It’s definitely not at all about money. When I can’t deal with customers, especially now because we need to be safe, so having the art side of the business is a really important outlet for me right now. If we’re competing with all of online, we need to make buying our product versus a big brand, really fucking count. It’s great to support a shop because it’s local, but we want people to support us because we’re doing our due diligence not just for charity. 

Is there anything else you want to add, specifically as a shop owner?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’re losing so many important voices in skating such as Grosso and Phelps and because of that, you start to lose that honesty—people who will be candid for better or worse. When I think about it, that real outsider vibe—the ‘80s punk time in skating is what spoke to me, even if I wasn’t skating then. Everyone is so buttoned up and corporate all, ‘Yeah man, everything is killer!’

No, it’s not all killer. In a way, when I got into skating, it felt like it was a way to fit in with the people who don’t fit in and part of that is finding your scene, finding spots, and finding a shop to hang at. It all kind of works together and I feel like skating has really moved from that into this really insular thing for a lot of people. It definitely feels like it is becoming more of a sport and less of a lifestyle these days.

In a way, a good shop is like a good record store. A real record head might be a bit of a pretentious asshole but they are going to steer you towards good shit and because of that you’ll not only come back but it gets you sparked. I really think shops can have that same impact.

You know, when you hit me up to do this interview I started thinking about a lot and one of the realizations and something that affects shops deeply is that kids aren’t used to settling anymore. When we were growing up, you were used to going to the shop, wanting an 8” Rick Howard, you go there and they don’t have it, so you get a Chocolate in an 8” or a Foundation or whatever. You get something because you want to skate. I get a lot of DMs about really specific things and if you don’t have it in stock, you never hear from them again. Like, sorry I don’t have that 8.25” Ben Kadow but we have a shipment coming in next week from FA… nothing. Brand loyalty is rad but kids don’t realize that if you just go and order exactly what you want online, it really hurts shops. I guess settling is just from a different era. I’m not trying to sound bitter but I realized that we all did it out of necessity and it’s a foreign concept now. 

I mean, I’ll tell you this, numerous times a week a kid will come in and ask for a specific board that we don’t carry. I’ll explain that we have another board in the exact same shape from the same woodshop or something coming in soon and they’re just over it.  I’m not making a villain out of anyone but it’s something I’ve noticed. I feel like the only time I ever left a shop with nothing growing up was when I was broke.

Well, if the supply chain gets fucked up, kids are going to learn to settle. Also, it’s really fucking weird to be so specific about something that you’re only going to destroy.