30/30: Laguna Beach’s Handplant

Photos: Chris Kimball

Editors Note: For the month of August, we are bringing you an up close and personal look at a different shop every day as part of our 30 Shops in 30 Days series. To get things started, we are kicking things off with this feature on Laguna Beach’s Handplant, a new shop opened by industry vet and one of the original founders of Sector 9, EG Fratantaro. Keep an eye out all month for more shop spotlights, and feel free to reach out to us business@transworld.net if you think your shop is worthy of being featured.

It's a typical weekend in Laguna Beach, as a slew of locals and tourists walk the sidewalks amidst the clusters of shops and restaurants that line Pacific Coast Highway, steps from the sleepy coastal town's popular surf breaks. EG Fratantaro knows most who wander past—and even if he doesn't, he still offers a, "What's up?" and a high-five or two. His enthusiasm is hard to ignore, and most who walk through the doors of Handplant—the new art-gallery-inspired skate shop he opened last April—end up becoming loyal customers and friends.

Fratantaro is a people person. His eyes light up as he explains the philosophy behind the latest murals by local LA artist James Haunt inside Handplant's boutique-style, 600-square-foot space.The launch he hosted there several weeks earlier gave Haunt—a talented skater who's also backed by lifestyle brand JSLV—a chance to show off his painting skills live. The shop owner is all about supporting local skateboarding, and he's no rookie to the game, drawing on the trials and ultimate successes he's learned along the way as one of the founding members of Sector 9.

You got to just gamble and go with it. It's a little risky, but I'm ready for the challenge.

As local groms filter in and out of the shop on a Sunday afternoon, it becomes clear his motive is to get more kids on boards and fill a muchneeded space in the market for the community he loves. It's a bold move. Handplant is one of the only independently owned skate retailers to pop up over the past year, but Fratantaro seems to be on the right track with a well-planned strategy.

"I try to pick the brands that Laguna Surf and Sport and Thalia Street don't carry," Fratantaro explains as he pauses to greet everyone who walks in. "Second Reef carries Sector 9 and Thalia Street carries cruisers. Laguna Surf and Sport are my friends. They were bummed at me when I did this, but I was like, 'Dude, you guys don't have a skate shop. There's no core skate shop here.' But it's all good now. They still carry Sector 9 and I hand-deliver their orders across the street."

We sat down with EG to hear more about why he created the shop, his intentions for evolving the retail space over time, his thoughts on what makes a good experience at retail, and his overall opinion on the state of skate.

Where did you find your inspiration for this shop?

Just from walking around New York a million times. In New York, you can see eight different styles in 100 yards, where in LA you have to drive to Silver Lake, drive to Hollywood. So when I’m in New York I started taking pictures of everything I liked. I like everything to be open, I don’t like to set stuff on the floor.

Who is usually working at the shop on any given day?

I’m usually here on the weekends, because I’m the best at selling stuff and I want to be able to talk to all the kids and locals that come in. I do have help. We have three or four people here. We have a world champion skim boarder who’s worked here, Sam Stinnett. One of our Sector 9 downhill skaters Max Capps works here, and we got Scott Garrett who’s our right hand filmer for Sector 9. It’s the least amount of stairs to the beach, and we’ve got Wahoos, Gina’s, Circle K for their sugar, Active Culture frozen yogurt, Acai Bowls, Adolfo’s, The Stand our health food place. No one really goes downtown because they don’t need to, they just hang here. This is where the surf is – Thalia Street and up is where all the surf spots are.

Why did you decide to open a skate shop now of all times? 

It’s the same thing as Sector 9 and I’ve really just kept this going: What is missing in a given market? There’s no skate shop here and because skateboarding is so big these days we don’t have to rely just on these guys to buy decks. It’s the clothing, it’s the whole culture. It makes it easier than just selling to just skateboarders, and that’s why I have so much foot traffic here. I’m selling to six year old kids and to fourteen year old boys. The reason I also opened up is because I figured I’d be here for another 20 years. Laguna is definitely my home, I’m not going anywhere and I’ll be here until my kid goes off to college. I figured if I’m going to be here, I might as well open up a shop and try to make some money. I’m not in it for the cool guy points at all. I don’t need any more.  I’m opening up because ultimately I love Laguna Beach and there’s nothing here. It’s a great outlet for me to pump Sector 9 up. You know downhill skateboarding here is huge, and the kids are stoked to have someone here who can speak their language.

Yeah, It’s a risky investment – everyone always says don’t open a restaurant, don’t open a skate shop, don’t open a clothing shop- but when you look around people are making money, people are buying, people are eating. You got to just gamble and go with it. I wanted this to be half gallery in Laguna, and a super clean look. A little risky, but I’m ready for the challenge. Once this gets a little more established I have another idea to do a restaurant, with the same kind of square footage, super tiny 600 sq ft, with a tiny kitchen. Westville in New York, they have really good food fish and yummy veggie dishes. They have a chalkboard everyday with different veggie specials, like roasted beets, roasted cauliflower, asparagus, mashed potatoes- a nice veggie plate. Something like that is missing here.

How do you divide your time between the shop and Sector 9?

Sector 9 during the week and then I do all my buying for the shop late at night, like 11:30 p.m. I’ll come here at night after it’s closed and make sure everything is merchandised right.  I work here on the weekends so I can save on employee hours and be here to talk to and meet people. It pays off. I see people come in during the summer from New York and I know if I talk to them and they are stoked on it they’ll come back. I’m growing my clientele. I’ve got to get more viral – that’s the one place I’m missing. That’s my goal for summer, not only to do more community based stuff, but also these kids are asking about sponsorship. I want to get a mini ramp in the parking lot, and have a barbecue and free skate in the parking lot. I’m working on getting all the insurance for that lined up.

The second one is to get involved in getting a skatepark for Laguna Beach. And third, I want to do a safety clinic for kids on down-hilling, so they know what to do if they came around the corner and God forbid one of their friends is on the ground with a broken leg or something. And just organizing some summer events. All my friends have motorcycles here and we’re thinking about doing a Sunday night beer night— just lining all the motorcycles down the street, and plug quarters in all the meters, so when you drive by all you see is 30 to 40 bikes lined up. The parties have been really good, too. We have live DJs, gourmet food, and we have a little bar set up back here in this corner. We do opening night pizza and beer and a closing night [party], too.

Do you see the shop getting to the point where you start your own e-commerce site?

It would be stupid not to do the e-commerce thing. I’ve been talking to my friend who is going to do it for me. Because it’s got to be done, we need to have it, even if it’s just basic. As long as it has some of the Handplant stuff and some of the stuff from the other brands. That’ what I’m going to do over the next few months.

Tell us more about the artist behind the current in-store art installations.

James from LA, 27 years old, he was doing construction and was so sick of carrying dry wall, that he just dropped it and said I’m going to pursue my art. And here he is. He’s sponsored by JSLV, and he’s also doing his own line of clothes too. He just did some awesome LA four story building with the huge glasses. He skates, too. He’s a really cool guy. Everyone I have in here is going to be a friend. I love that; that’s one of my favorite parts is having the art element. I don’t think there is one other shop here in Laguna that has live painting.

What do you see as being the biggest learning curve going from the brand to running your own retail location?

Be different. Grab brands that no one knows about.  Just be real. I love to talk to people. I just took all the stuff I learned from Sector 9—how to market, how to display stuff, and how to work your ass off to do it. I still find a couple new people here and there, but for the most part I’m carrying all my friend’s stuff. So it works good.

What brands are doing the best?

Sector 9, JSLV, Creature, and then maybe Supra. We don’t have too many —there’s only about ten brands in here and I don’t think I want to put too much more. JSLV is my one stop for clothing. I might carry Kr3w because I’ve already got Supra. I don’t want to sink the ship. Shoes take up a grip of room, and you can really sink your shop with shoe inventory. So I’ve been learning that game. That was one thing I didn’t know that I learned as I went along.

I want to carry more shoes and be known for a shoe shop. Once we get them in here for shoes we open them up to tank tops, and button downs, and all that. There is not a lot of shoe shops near here and the Hurley store just closed down. I want to carry women’s shoes – Supra has some really cute women’s shoes – and I want to carry running shoes as well. Also carving out a women’s section of the store – not like L*Space bikinis or anything, but just a couple cool items like tank tops and stuff girls would wear. Light, thin hoodies; just a few items for the girls.

What do you think the shop can do more of to be successful?

I need to do more of the social marketing. Once summer is over it turns into the little ghost town of Laguna Beach. We get people who come down here but its tourists. Here we are lucky we have hotels but people aren’t really coming downy to Laguna Beach to hang out. It’s the kids – once they turn 16 they aren’t walking anymore they are driving everywhere -so I have to think of new ways to get kids down here. Winter was slow for sure, and it makes me think about next year and how I’m going to attack it, and that’s it for sure. Local, local, local; we’ve got to get advertisements in the play book. I think everybody knows about it, but I still have people coming in here saying”dude I didn’t know this was here!” I don’t have a big elaborate sign up because as a skate shop I didn’t want to put us on the map and didn’t want to have full-on skate sessions out front. I wanted to come in easy, under the radar, especially here in Laguna because cops love hating on skaters.

What category is doing the best?

Downhill boards were doing great and then some of the kids started getting over it. Once you get two tickets—and you know they aren’t paying for it— parents start getting mad at kids. You get two tickets, one because you aren’t wearing a helmet, the other because you are bombing down a hill on a banned street. They have outlawed a few roads here but the kids still skate ’em. It’s just like skate it quick and jump to the next one. They did leave some streets open for the downhill kids.

What brands are you thinking about bringing into the shop at the moment?

Altamont is another brand I’m thinking about carrying as well. They have sick stuff and they are small and still growing. Then again I want to keep it clean. If you walk into Thalia Street – and I love Nick and everyone over there -but it’s like stacks of stuff just out of control. People come in and they are like Oh you just have that one? and I’m like no there’s more in the back. I like to bring it out for them in a plastic bag and be like, “here you go, no one’s ever touched it.” This is the year that I show the city of Laguna Beach that skateboarding is a real thing, it’s not for little children. What they have to understand is that people are investing money.