Interview Chris Nieratko Photo 1
From left to right: Scotty Coats, Tanya Dorsey of Watts Community Core and Chris Nieratko / Photo by Atiba Jefferson

Let’s talk with Chris Nieratko about Skate Shop Day, the evolution of skate shops, giving back to the community, the Olympics and more

January 29, 2021

Chris Nieratko has been a big voice in skateboarding for more than twenty-five years. More recently, him and his friends started Skate Shop Day, which will be held on February 19th this year, for its second edition. We had the chance to talk with him to learn more about it, to discuss the evolution of skate shops, the importance of giving back to the community and more. Grab a drink, some snacks, and enjoy this very interesting interview.
How did you come up with the idea of creating the Skate Shop Day in 2020? When did you first think about it?
Truth be told, it’s not my idea entirely. My friend Scotty Coats, who works in the music industry, is a lifelong skater, and he was on the ground floor of Record Store Day which has been hugely successful. It’s pretty remarkable because they now have it twice a year, earlier in the year and then I think it’s the Friday after Thanksgiving. Scotty was telling me that these mom-and-pop record stores have a special day, they get exclusive and limited product. And in that day, they generate three to five months’ worth of rent, in one single day. I was blown away by that alone and he’s like, “We should do this for skate shops”. I absolutely fell in love with the idea and so that was last February, we thought of it on a Friday, and the following Thursday we launched a website and Instagram, thanks to artist Sasha Barr for lending us his, “Support your local skateshop” artwork.

That first skate shop day I basically went through my cell phone and sent that “Support your local skateshop” image to every single pro skateboarder friend that I know and have interviewed over the last 25 years. I said, “Could you post this or tell your skate shop or throw it in the stories or whatever, and just tag this”, and it went from being an idea the Friday before, to being a thing on Thursday. The response around the globe was absolutely unbelievably overwhelming. There were shops from Malaysia, New Zealand, Chile and everywhere, just posting and celebrating. People didn’t even know it was a thing and then all these shops were DMing us and saying, “People are coming with coffees and donuts and pizzas thanking us”. The community just got behind it, it caught on instantly. We didn’t know what we were doing! We didn’t know what it could and should be yet. We just knew skate shops are unlike any other business on the planet, record stores included. They are at times a halfway house, at times a rehab center, at times a school, at times a daycare. I grew up loving comic books and that’s another very niche mom and pop type of business. But the comic book store owner wasn’t gonna tell me not to do drugs, he wasn’t gonna tell me to stay in school, he would not bail me out of jail, you know? That is inherently and exclusively a thing that skate shop owners do, and at times you know, shop owners are a kid’s second if not first parents.
Interview Chris Nieratko Quote 1
Interview Chris Nieratko Quote 1
Skateboarding has a strong community and skate shops are the roots of the culture, do you think this is why it had such a big impact last year for the first edition?
I think that plays a big factor into it. I think also that historically skateboarders are latchkey kids, you know in the community more than anything, we have each other, like when I have a problem at home I’m turning to skateboarders. I only really talk and hang out with skateboarders. I don’t really know how to interact very well with civilians. Like everybody in my life is a skateboarder or I know somehow through skateboarding, and I think that connection triggered something in skateboarders that day where they were like: “Skate shops do so much, they throw the demos, they do so much for the community. Hell yeah let’s celebrate!”, and I have never met a skateboarder that wasn’t looking for an excuse to party. So I think everybody in the dead of winter was just like, “Cool! Skate Shop Day, I’m in”. The love skateboarders have for skateboarding is so deep-rooted that every aspect of skateboarding is cause for celebration.
Interview Chris Nieratko Skate Shop Day
With Covid and what we are going through right now, do you think this is even more meaningful this year?
The short answer is yes, because it has been trying times for everyone on earth and I won’t say that it is more so for skate shop owners, but it’s a different set of challenges. The only goal for Skate Shop Day is to make the register ring for those shops in the dead of winter and to make sure that we are celebrating all that those shops do for everyone, plain and simple. You know, shop owners, over the course of nearly a year here in the United States of closures and shutdowns and stressors, have struggled to get product. Hard goods have had a very difficult time of landing on our borders if they’re coming from overseas, there’s just a wood shortage because there’s increased participation in skateboarding, it’s been difficult. I can tell you that back in August, at my own shop NJ Skateshop, my partner Steve Lenardo reached out like, “We have three sets of trucks between two stores”, it was gnarly.

But skate shop owners always find a way and I will say that the owners came together in a way that I’ve never seen in our 18 years of business. I’m watching shops refer customers to other shops across the country, “Hey does anybody have this Ray Barbee board? Does anybody have this? I’m going to send them your way”. Mike [Gigliotti], owner of Lotties Skate Shop in Los Angeles, made a t-shirt with artwork and every shop’s name, and just gave it to them for them to use. People coming together in such a unique way to survive this moment in history. And I’ll tell you what, I don’t try to be a negatron, but I felt like a lot of people might not be set up digitally for this, and we were gonna lose a good portion of skate shops. I’ll never underestimate skate shops again man, they proved me wrong and everybody knuckled up and they built up their online presence. They kept the lights on, they kept kids skating, they persevered it, it’s pretty astounding. So this year 2021 is just a celebration more than anything, like, “Holy shit, we made it through that!” For me and Scotty, it’s always been about 2022. After we saw it catch fire last February, we’re like, “Okay, we don’t need to do too much to make this a little bit better for 2021”, because we both have day jobs you know. We do this on our nights and weekends and try to pull this off. We always were like, “2022 is really the focus”.
Interview Chris Nieratko Quote 2
Interview Chris Nieratko Quote 2
I work with this amazing woman at Vans. Her name is April Vitkus, she created and launched Vans Checkerboard Day in 2019. I sit next to her in the office and I just watched really closely. I was just blown away by everything she pulled together. I just listened closely, and she was kind enough to share information. In 2020 Vans was able to give a million dollars to different mental health organizations, and it’s growning each year. I just applied the exact same philosophy to Skate Shop Day. We don’t need to swing for the fences and have home runs. We just need to get on base and get this thing in play. And I feel really good about where we landed man. I am blown away by the people who have stepped up to support this thing. I’m in no way shocked by Jim Thiebaud and Deluxe and their instant desire to be included the day after. It was February 20th of last year, Jim picked up the phone, “What do we do? How do we do it?”. He has always supported skate shops. Most people don’t know that this is Deluxe’s 30th anniversary, and they have never sold direct to the consumer, always shops first. There are brands that are five minutes old that don’t even sell to the shops, they’re just an online brand and they’re not giving back to the community, they’re not giving back to the culture. Jim, Deluxe, Tommy Guerrero, Julian Stranger, you know, their entire team, it’s just all about skateboarding and giving back to it. And so, “Boom, we’ve got a Real skateboard for this year. Boom, we’ve got a Spitfire wheel for this year”. Now we’ve got something. It went from being just Instagram to like, “Holy shit we have product!”. Next Vans wanted to send “Support your local skateshop” tees to all the shops that ordered the Deluxe stuff! Then mid-summer, my man Greg Galbraith at Russell Athletics reached out and he’s like, “Let’s make some t-shirts”, and he just made custom t-shirts in the middle of the year for the shops to do what they want, sell them, give them away, whatever. Our philosophy is that every day is Skate Shop Day, it’s not a one-day thing we should be celebrating these people always. The party’s on February 19th, but all year long we should be showing love. So Greg and Russell Athletics got behind it like straight away, and many other people are now behind it, Igloo coolers, New Balance, Emerica in addition to Vans, Russell, Spitfire and Real.

It’s been an unbelievable response. I’m humbled by it. This is just us trying to get through Covid to do something. I feel like we far surpassed that, and I think that with the hope that the world gets its shit back together this year in some way, 2022 is going to be gangbusters. You know there’s not enough wood and urethane on earth to pull that off this year, but Jim Thiebaud had a vision that the board and wheel would be all over the globe in 2022. He has assured me like, “In china they’ll have the board and the wheel you know, in Argentina they’ll have the board and the wheel, in Portugal they’ll have the board in the wheel”. 2022 is gonna be nuts!
Interview Chris Nieratko Photo 2
Illustration by Greg Fergason
You own a skate shop for nearly 20 years. How did you see the evolution of skate shops with the internet and social media booming?
So, this is NJ Skateshop’s 18th anniversary you know. Julian Stranger is kind enough to give us our third Anti-Hero board this year. Brian Anderson is actually going to paint it for the shop and the proceeds will go to a cause of Brian’s choosing. I’m really excited about that. But yeah, we opened the doors in 2003. I don’t know if the internet was even really a thing, like, we just used it strictly for watching adult movies I think, you know, that was the sole purpose that Al Gore invented the internet [laughs]. And then it evolved into being the most wonderful and terrible thing in modern history. It is going to either save us or destroy us all, and it’s definitely done that for skate shops over the years. A tiny little shop in Lyon can be a global brand, thanks to the internet. It’s really special in that way. It has also made it a bit difficult and requiring some adjustment from the shops, to navigate the fact that their long-time friends and business partners in the skate industry are making the same product that drove people to skate shops, available cheaper and with free shipping on their website.

It makes people have to rethink the products that they carry, so that’s the evolution. You walk out of a skate shop and shop owners have come to realize that they are their own brand, and their best margins are their house label. Instead of carrying a t-shirt that 10,000 of them are made by some big brand, let’s carry this limited t-shirt of our own that we’ve only made 144 units, or 72 units. There is nothing more limited on this planet in our world than skate shop t-shirts. There is not a brand, like a large brand, that would bother with those low numbers. And so, people are seeing that, and the shop product is selling out. I’m watching it by every single store, Familia selling out instantly, FTC selling out instantly, all these stores just selling out of their own stuff before they could sell one size run of some other brand’s t-shirt. It’s beautiful. So, the evolution, to answer your question, is that internet has evolved and as a result, small skate shops have an ability to reach an audience that they couldn’t before, and it’s pretty sick, I love it. I always have said to my partner Steve the joke, “WWSD, What Would Supreme Do?”, because they are the most successful skate shop in history, and they have done it on the strength of their house label, of their own brand. I have always been in awe of that success and we always felt like, “Hey if NJ is going to weather every storm, we need NJ product you know”. I think that shop owners feel the same way and also there’s that sense of pride, you see your shirt, your design, your logo out in the wild. Steve is always posting people posting our stickers in like Cancun, or it’s showing up in Barcelona or wherever it is. As a skater and as a skate nerd, that shit means something, it feels really cool.
Interview Chris Nieratko Quote 3
Interview Chris Nieratko Quote 3
From Disney Adventures to Big Brother to the eggnog challenge to Vans to Skate Shop Day, what’s your best memory in your career so far?
Honestly, there’s been so many and I’m so thankful to even still be alive and part of the skateboard community and just being able to contribute, I think. As my hair gets grayer, I have realized the religious side of skateboarding that I failed to see in my 20s, and I was clouded by a lot of alcohol. You get older and you’re like, “Wow this thing is so very special, it’s not just me, me, me. I’m part of something bigger”. And the thing that means the most to me in my career is Steve and I and our friend Troy Jankowski starting NJ in 2003. Because aside from the fact that we’ve moved a lot of wood over the years and got a lot of people into skateboarding, there are very deep personal relationships we’ve watched kids grow. We’ve got a young fella, John Carson, he was our first customer in 2003, he was a fetus and he ripped then. Here we are 18 years later, he’s overcome addiction, he’s celebrating sobriety, he is ripping harder than ever and he’s a grown-ass man. There are so many of those stories you know, we’ve watched boys and girls become men and women and get married and have children. We watched the NJ family grow. That is a story that I think all skate shops share. If you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reason, but man, if you’re in it for love, your pockets will be full of love. For me, it’s finally being able to give back to other shops in some way because I’ve traveled the world and the first place I go whenever I hit the ground is a skate shop. Shops around the planet have shown that kindness to me and so many other people, and so to be able to give back to shops means the world to me.

I’m also working on starting this nonprofit organization called Super Skate Posse. It started in Watts, California. Atiba [Jefferson] and I started it. At Nickerson Gardens, next to the boys and girls club in the housing project, there’s a fun little skate park and nobody used it because they didn’t have boards, Atiba and I just looked at each other like, “We can get some boards”. So in September, we gave away a hundred Baker and Santa Cruz skateboards, a hundred Pro-Tec helmets and a hundred pairs of Vans to the hundred kids that live in Nickerson. They’re skating now, man!
The best thing is to see these kids smiling and having fun.
Absolutely! There is a report which is quite beautiful, Neftalie Williams headed up a study at USC [University of Southern California], supported by the Tony Hawk Foundation. The overwhelming learning from it is the mental health benefit with skateboarding. And I watched it happen at Watts you know. I skate there each week and when I go there, there’s nobody out and then the kids hear the wheels and they come out of the woodwork with their Baker boards. They’re butt boarding, they’re just like cruising around but man, you would need a crowbar to pry the smile off their face. Just so stocked. I had foot surgery in September, and I was laid up for a couple months. People were sending me photos each week of kids with their boards or kids skating, that was the energy I needed to recover quickly. The goal for Atiba and I with this thing is to just get some friends in a van and just go from skate shop to skate shop in underserved communities around the country, and hopefully eventually globally. Just get kids skating and see those smiles you know.

There’s a story that Natas [Kaupas] shared with Atiba that blows my mind every time I tell it. And it was shocking when Atiba shared it with me. After we did the thing in Watts with the Watts Community Core organization, he said that Natas reached out and told him that him and Thiebaud and some other friends did a similar thing in Oakland in ‘89, and Natas said, “You know who came out of that and got their first board that day? Lavar and Marcus McBride”. Think of a world without Lavar and Marcus McBride, their contributions were huge to skateboarding, and as a result of just getting that first board. I’m not saying that anyone needs to have ambitions of being a pro skater, the smile is enough but, but, if one out of those 100 kids in 20 years says, “Weirdest thing happened in my life, Andrew Reynolds showed up and gave me a Baker skateboard, changed everything for me”. Simple but magic. I always say that skateboarding is magic, and I know that any kid that sees magic at a young age wants to be a magician. People have all sorts of mixed feelings about the Olympics and I’m indifferent. It’s not my type of thing, but if somebody in Madagascar sees magic for the first time, we might have a million more magicians out there.
The Olympics will have as many women as men athletes in skateboarding, do you think the event will push women to start a brand, run a skate shop, or even create a girl only skate shop?
No. I don’t think so because you’re talking about a person that is already interested in skateboarding. I think the result of the Olympics will be to spark new people interested in skateboarding, so they’re not thinking about brands or skate shops or anything they’re just like, “That looks cool, I’d like to try that, that looks really fun”. It’s just like so many other phenomenons and movie exposures with skateboarding, like Back to the Future. However people get here doesn’t matter as long as they stay, that’s the goal, and if they stay, maybe they’ll think about opening up a skate shop or starting a brand. There are on a number of amazing women filmers and artists and skateboarders, and just like every attribute of our community—those women already exist. They’re doing it and we need more of it. But I don’t think the Olympics is going to do anything to inspire those women. I think they already have their own vision and trajectory. I don’t think it’s gonna factor. The only thing that we could hope for with the Olympics is that some kid sees skateboarding for the first time and says, “that’s the thing for me”.
Interview Chris Nieratko Photo 3
Chris Nieratko and Atiba Jefferson / Photo by Andrew James Peters
How do you imagine the skate shop of the future? Do you think Marty McFly will sell you hoverboards?
It’s funny! I have been thinking a lot about life in the future in general. I suppose four years of a ghastly administration will make you question your immortality more than usual [Laughs]. So I’ve been really thinking on it and I try very much to be an optimist, and because I have two children, nine and eleven, I want it to be rainbows and butterflies and unicorns. But there’s a part of me that envisions a very dystopian reality for the future. As we lean more into technology and robots, and all of these things play a bigger part in our day-to-day lives. We’ve seen it progress so quickly over the past decade. I think that a skate shop almost becomes like an old speakeasy you know. The role is the same of educating and inspiring kids, but I think skateboarding goes back to lawlessness and rebellion. I think that if shops exist in the same way, the front will be commerce and, in the back, you go through a secret door and it’s like Willy Wonka’s Factory. We’ll all huddle together in this very secretive way that is very much our own. I think in the future, skateboarders will come even closer together and this thing will stand out as even more special than it already is.
That was a great talk. Wanna say something else?
I just want to thank skateboarders for supporting Skate Shop Day and this idea. Also, the world has experienced so much loss. Skateboarding has experienced so much loss. In New Jersey, we lost a good friend Brendan Wilkie, last year we lost Jeff Grosso, Mark Waters and Henry Gartland just passed, we’re losing friends left and right. Before I wake up dead I just wanna send love to everybody and remind everyone to tell your friends you love them. We need each other more than ever. Make sure that your friends and family are all right, they’re the most important thing right now.
Check out more of Chris Nieratko’s projects on Instagram.