Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Return of Longboard Haven Skate Shop

Earlier this month marked the happy, much-anticipated launch of Longboard Haven, a Toronto skate shop selling a focused selection of high-quality decks, gear, safety equipment, clothing, and art.

Photo: Longboard Haven skate shop owners Rob Sydia and Mike McGown
Proud shop owners Rob Sydia and Mike McGown

I dropped in on the two proprietors, Rob Sydia, and Mike McGown (a.k.a. ‘Smooth Chicken’) to discuss the new business and what they have planned for the future. Located on a gritty stretch of Queen Street East, their compact shop is open every day, ‘noon-ish to seven’ (five on weekends). When the spring season starts, official hours will be 11 am to 8pm.

Photo: exterior of Longboard Haven skate shop at 183 Queen St. E
Longboard Haven: Now open for business at 183 Queen St. E

The Origins of Longboard Haven: Pat Switzer
Longboard Haven is a name that has a history in Toronto longboarding circles.

The shop had its first incarnation seven years ago as a (literally) underground operation, run from the basement apartments of Patrick Switzer -- who has since become one of the world’s top downhill skateboarders. McGown was his room-mate and close friend; the Haven was named after a secret skate garage near Eglinton and Leslie they used to frequent, along with Sydia and a couple of others.

Switzer supplied and serviced the then-nascent Toronto longboarding community, featuring specialized gear that regular skate shops often wouldn’t carry, and which was otherwise difficult to obtain.

Photo: circa 2008 image of Longboard Haven run from Patrick Switzer's basement apartment
Longboard Haven was once run from Mike and Pat’s old Essex St.
basement apartment [the very first incarnation was in the basement of Adam Winston’s family home]. Photo circa 2008, courtesy Patrick Switzer

Switzer subsequently moved west to pursue his downhill racing career, and the business was shuttered. I reached out to Pat (based in Vancouver & not involved in the current version, except karmically) to ask what he thought about LBH’s fresh start as an actual bricks and mortar store. His comment:
I am honoured that the store is having a rebirth -- like we imagined it could one day be. Rob and Mike were invaluable to what Longboard Haven was as a underground skate shop. Now they are taking that dream, good vibes and ideology of being different and for the community, to a new level.

Photo: Pat Switzer and Mike McGown
Pat & Mike in their salad days
“E.S. 4 life!”
Side note: Switzer is now producing the Greener Pastures sport adventure web series, which brings together many of the world’s best riders and has accumulated nearly a million views to date. Support his project via the indiegogo fundraising campaign!

Equipping Riders with the Right Gear
I asked McGown why he and Sydia would take up the challenge of starting up a for-real retail shop, when the industry is notorious for turnover, and undergoing a transition as online distributors compress margins. McGown’s explanation of the opportunity:
Toronto’s skate market needs it. There’s a hole in how people get gear. When Pat and I ran the shop out of the basement initially, it was only to bring in gear that people wanted that was... a little bit out there. You wanted a truck that was made halfway around the world? Ok, we’re going to get that for you, that's the quality that we’re looking for. And that has [since] kind of slipped away.
You have shops selling some pretty cheap ‘Made in China’ stuff. Both Rob and I didn’t like what we were seeing.
Photo: Longboard Haven store interior
Longboard Haven will stock a focused selection of high-quality skate gear

He informed me of the shop’s unofficial motto, which has a distinctly old-timey cadence:
‘If we won’t ride it, we won’t stock it.’
Sydia then chimed in:
We saw an explosion of the grom community. You have new skaters arriving at the scene, they see the videos on YouTube of Pat or John or Mike and they want to go in at 100kph.
But there’s a learning curve. How do we bring things back to that? It starts with your gear -- understanding the gear. The philosophy is, we brought the best of the best in, and it’s the rider that determines what they purchase, with our help.

Longboard Haven logo
The Longboard Haven logo: Can you name all the silhouettes?

The voluble and often bombastic Sydia has been skating for a long time [sorry, Rob!]. He’s... the skater dad. The adult who patiently calms down the cops. Who explains to parents what their kids are really doing. Who tells you to put on a helmet [which he’s now in a position to sell you, ahem].

He’s also been involved behind the scenes, as a mentor, influence and advisor to Switzer and others within the skate community via Gnar Extreme Sports Management. Sydia contends that the sport has grown too large overall to stay underground, and that it must evolve towards legitimacy. The shop is one facet of his participation in that maturation process.

I asked about their pricing approach -- something that can be a sensitive topic with skate shops, from both the customer and supplier directions. Sydia understands the tension, but was careful to emphasize their shop would prioritize selling quality and premium goods at fair (but not cut-rate) prices.

He elaborated again on the mindset they are bringing:
Your style and my style are different. Mike's style is different. What feels right under your feet might not feel good under my feet. So the idea is to stock the best gear -- we’re not dealing any junk, ever -- and work with the customer to dial it down... 
It's about equipping riders with knowledge, equipping them with the right gear, and then putting really good safety around it.

A Community Hub
Signature wall at Longboard Haven
Sign the downstairs lounge wall...
The partners are working to develop strong connections in the industry -- including and especially local builders -- something that they hope will give them an edge.

What’s more, the pair intend the shop to be much more than just an outlet of goods. Their vision is to become an important nucleus of the Ontario skate community, and to get more people involved.

Switzer’s leathers
on display...
Sections of the store are consciously oriented towards connecting visitors to the rest of the local skate scene and its history. The downstairs lounge features a signature wall, and mini-exhibit pieces are scattered throughout. Sydia pointed out a surface that he hopes to populate with photos and ephemera from events as they happen:

It’ll be like a museum -- of our culture.

(BTW rabid Pat Switzer fans: his old race leathers are on temporary display in the lower level, until the model leathers come in. If you want to see & touch a piece of longboarding history, check it out now.)

An Obvious Labour of Love
The venture is self-funded (Sydia is the principal owner, with veteran skater McGown as a secondary partner). It took the duo two months of intense labour to clean, renovate, paint, set up, decorate, and stock the establishment, housed inside a former art-gallery.

Work sucks. Photo by Jonathan Nuss
Chicken: working for himself now
Photo courtesy Jonathan Nuss
I commend the pair for their spirit and commitment. It’s easy to say, “oh, it would be great to run a skate shop”; it’s an entirely different thing to put your passion and savings on the line and do it.

I wish them every success.

Longboard Haven -- featuring the nicest skate shop washroom you’ll ever use -- is located at 183 Queen St. East, Toronto. Support your local shop!

[Full disclosure: Chicken is a friend of mine. And Sydia’s friends with everyone. Mostly.]

Past Skate Articles From Me
Profile: Justin Readings, Downhill Skateboarder
Is skateboarding illegal in Toronto?
The Toronto Board Meeting: A Short History
The rise of Patrick Switzer, Downhill Skateboarder
Letter to Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon: Why Jeopardize the Ashbridges Bay Skate Park?
Concrete Wave’s Lame ‘Pin-Up’ Cover
The Banana Split -- Four Years Later
Grappling with another longboarding death
Our first longboarding tragedy
Speed! Thrills! Women! FUBU Skate Race Recap