Shwanika Narayan, writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, talking about the resurgence of skateboard shops that are making their way back on the streets of San Francisco.
Taylor Epperson, 18, sits on a beanbag with quiet concentration as he plays video games with four friends around noon on a January weekday at the Create skate shop. It’s the embodiment of the online skateboard brand — another digital retailer that has found it pays to have a storefront people can walk into.
“I come here at least twice a week,” Epperson, a student at City College, said. “They’ve hit a spot by putting in a ramp and creating a place for us to chill. It’s so inviting.”
And it’s not just any place. A cluster of skateboard retail businesses have sprung up around Sixth and Market streets in San Francisco. Create Skateboards, founded online in 2012 by father Chris and son Jordin Martinez, opened its store in October. New York’s Supreme, another skateboard maker, followed a month later. They’re both near San Francisco’s Thrasher Magazine, the authority on all things skateboarding, which opened a store in 2018. The three stores now function as a skate destination, livening up a gritty area of the city.
“Sixth Street is definitely grunge but as skaters, we’re used to it,” said Chris Martinez, referring to the very visible plight of homelessness in the area. “We don’t shun homeless folks, we embrace them and work with them and you definitely won’t find a skater blogging about not wanting to see homeless people. This is their home, too.”
Retail in general has seen better days. Competition with Amazon, high rents and wages, and daunting bureaucracy are all obstacles small businesses face in San Francisco. But specialty retail-like skate shops, when done well, can offer much more than just products easily bought online to customers.
The 600-square-foot Create shop offers its own brand of skateboards, hoodies and hats, but still has room for shoppers to hang out and play video games. The even smaller Thrasher store at 666 Sixth St. is a quasi museum featuring wall art and a timeline, with screens playing videos from its YouTube channel. It also happens to sell skateboards and apparel. The bigger Supreme store on 1015 Market St. around the corner has a full skate bowl on its second floor, providing a rare opportunity to skate indoors.
“Each store provides something different,” said Reese Forbes, a former pro skater who lives in Marin and consulted for Supreme before the company opened its San Francisco store in November. “The area is heavily trafficked, and skaters plus people who’d like to learn a thing or two about skating will find their way there.”
The stores are also close to skating chain store Zumiez in Union Square. A new city skate park is a half-dozen blocks away, and the “Island” — properly known as Harry Bridges Plaza — in front of the Ferry Building is another popular skater hangout.
There’s about 10 skate shops in the city today including local stalwarts such as Deluxe, Mission Skateboards and FTC Skateboarding. But the proximity of the three stores make it a destination, Chris Martinez said, instead of being “islands spread all over the city.”
Skateboarding’s popularity has ebbed and flowed, but the sport remains rooted in San Francisco’s underground subculture. That’s thanks in part to Thrasher, which skaters still reverently call “the bible,” and also San Francisco’s unique topography, which allows for “hill bombing,” or skating full speed down the city’s steep streets.
“There’s something about San Francisco; the city is a skate park,” said Shawn Connolly, co-founder of the SF Skate Club, an organization that teaches skateboarding skills to children, teens and adults. “It’s compact and the terrain makes it the perfect setting for everything.”
It’s generally accepted that skateboarding was born in the late 1940s on the West Coast by surfers who were looking to do something during the winter months of the surfing season. The sport surged in the 1970s when a new type of wheel was invented. The 1980s saw the rise of homegrown legends like Tommy Guerrero and Jim Thiebaud, an era that also saw more street skating teams materialize, a trend that’s continued today. Interest picked up again in the past decade, which Chris Martinez attributes to kids raised on video games and the internet looking for something to do outside — like his son Jordin, who came up with the idea of Create in 2012 when he was 15.
Skating still has a stigma; it’s illegal in some parts of San Francisco, including business districts, and everywhere after dark. A 2018 incident where a skater was accused of smashing the head of a security guard who was left with permanent brain injury renewed some outsiders’ disdain for the sport.
Despite its lingering outlaw image, skateboarding has received one big stamp of approval as a real sport: Skateboarders will compete for the first time in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Connolly said he’s seen an uptick in attendance for Skate Club classes. The bigger challenge for the stores, he said, is how expensive San Francisco has become.
Chris Martinez said his rent was “reasonable.” Supreme did not respond to a request for comment, and a Thrasher employee said he didn’t know what it paid in rent.
“The skating community is supportive and will bolster business at the stores, but rent is a separate factor,” Connolly said. “It’s not the same San Francisco anymore.”
By Shwanika Narayan Staff Writer for The San Francisco Chronicle