True To Its Roots

San Jose, California.

The city was once hailed as the “skateboard capital of theworld,” and still remains home to one of the rawest skate scenesaround.

So, it’s pretty funny there’s only one ‘core skate shop indowntown San Jose today.

Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose is the long-established capital of the nation’s dotcom industry. And althoughthe logical assumption, generally, is that lots of skateboardersequals lots of skate shops, San Jose seems to be an exception.

Mind you, it gives the place so much damn character.

Circle A Skateboards And Shoes was started by former 80sprofessional freestyle skater Bob Schmelzer. He founded and ranCircle A Skateboards from 1985 to 1989, and considered the shopan outgrowth of that project after the brand’s demise.

Schmelzer opened the shop to fill what he refers to as a voidin the San Jose skateboard scene. While the city’s downtown areahad a lot of skateboarders, Schmelzer says the lack of a downtown’core skate shop formed a conspicuous void. “There was a definiteneed for skateboarding to be more present and more visibledowntown,” he says. “The skateboarders needed a shop, and thetown needed retail.”

Although the shop has a default monopoly of sorts–beingthe only skate shop downtown–Schmelzer says that hasn’tparticularly helped business: “You’d think that being the only store,you’d do good business. I’m just trying to take care of the kids whoskate and actually live downtown.”

The immense skate energy in San Jose is what inspiredSchmelzer to open the store. “Growing up and being in high schoolhere, skating all these buildings with my friends–I knew the energyhere,” he says. “There’s a huge concentration of amazingprofessional and amateur skateboarders downtown–it’s theskateboard energy here that’s the lure. From the new breed to theold guys, there’s just a lot of energy, period.”

In terms of the size, the shop is comfortably spacious at atotal of 1,600 square feet. However, situated in an 1842 Victorianhouse, it has a rather unconventional architecture for a skate shop.”I definitely don’t have that much floor space,” admits Schmelzer.There’s no doubt that the shop’s architecture is unique. The retailarea is split between a front and back room. A long hallwayconnects shoes and hardgoods at the front of the store, to the backof the store, where all the softgoods are. The hallway is the artgallery, which features monthly art exhibits spotlighting local andarea artists.

Focusing on the ‘core skate market, Schmelzer proudlystates: “We don’t even really carry any team boards. We’re hardcoreskate and support the skateboarders. No pedals, water, or snow.”

As for what percentage of the shop’s sales he attributes tohardgoods versus softgoods, Schmelzer suggests that although thequantities of hardgoods are greater–generating approximately 60percent of total sales–the remaining 40 percent attributed to shoes(30 percent), and clothing (ten percent), are more profitable.”Obviously overall profit margins are better on shoes and clothing,”he says. “I don’t go over $56.95 for a board.”

As far as wood goes, there’s no profit. That’s why he predictsthe numbers are about to change with the shop’s recentdevelopment of a more comprehensive softgoods department.

Circle A is centrally located in downtown San Jose. “Ourlocation is definitely beneficial to business, because I haven’t spentany money on mainstream advertising,” says Schmelzer. “All myadvertising has been done through my team or through visibility. It’skind of tough downtown because there’s no real retail environmenthere.”

Much of the blame for that lies in the post-dotcom recession.”During the dotcom era, office space was going for such a highdollar that I think it took over the reasonable price for retail space,and it’s kind of stuck,” he says. “We’re the capital of the SiliconValley. More energy was put toward office space rather than towardproper retail space.”

San Jose’s economy today is definitely not booming like itwas during the dotcom heyday. Still a computer-based industry hubof sorts, the economy is relatively strong, but not exactly thriving.San Jose has definitely been affected by the current nationwiderecession. In mid July, The San Jose Mercury News reportedthat one of San Jose?s largest employers, computer company Intel,announced it was going to slash 4,000 jobs from a total workforceof over 80,000, in order to reduce costs. Although this is just oneexample of an area company, the news has repeated on a smallerscale with other area employers.

The city’s downtown area isn’t as bustling as it once was.Urban sprawl has hit San Jose pretty hard. Inhabited largely bystudents and low-income residents, downtown sits apart from themore affluent suburban population who tend to opt instead forsuburban strip-mall comforts. City council is working on a numberof downtown revitalization schemes to stimulate both the downtowneconomy and traffic in the area.

This, combined with the downtown area’s obvious need for apublic skatepark, is why Schmelzer has teamed forces with citycouncil. Well, sort of. He’s joined SOFA (South Of First Area)–amajor downtown redevelopment scheme in the works. Thecommittee’s mission is to raise awareness of some of the issuesaffecting downtown residents in the area south of First Street, whichthe shop falls into. “The reason I’ve joined that committee is to havesome influence on the needs of the town and trying to get it awayfrom just parking (issues),” says Schmelzer.

While estimates on the number of skaters in San Jose mayrange, Circle A maintains a guest book that currently holds thenames of nearly 1,500 kids–all from the downtown area. “They’rethe numbered-street kids,” he says. “They’re all here, and they’re allright down the street.”

Low-income area residents and a large number of collegestudents make up the majority of the shop’s customer base. “It’shard to translate that they’re all skateboarders, but there are a lotof them,” he says. “Let’s just say that I re-griptape a lot of boards.”

Schmelzer strongly believes that a skate shop indowntown San Jose can help push the issue that downtown needs askateboard park: “Hopefully being a local business member, I’ll havea little more influence on whether or not a park gets built.”

SOFA has made some progress by joining with the local ParksAnd Recreation department to establish that an area under thefreeway would be best suited for a skateboard park. “It used to beillegal in that area, but now it isn’t,” says Schmelzer. “So step onehas been accomplished, which is eliminating the anti-skateboard lawin the area.”

In the meantime, Schmelzer will have to hope the skaterscontinue to make do in the streets. “It’s very tight right now as faras store sales go,” he says. “I’m just now starting to feel somesummer activity (in July). I hope that sticks. We’ve got a scaredeconomy with inconsistent buying patterns. One minute they’rebuying something, and the next four days they’re scared. There’sjust no pattern to it like there used to be.”

As with most other skate shops, business is relativelyseasonal at Circle A. But while there’s an admitted “change of items”at the store, explains Schmelzer, “In California we’ve gotskateboarders year-round, so it’s pretty steady all year, with thehighs being back-to-school, summer, and the (Christmas) holiday.”

Despite the current economy, Schmelzer plans to relaunchthe Circle A skateboard company. “We just got our team andgraphics in line, and we’re working on getting product done,” hesays. “I’ve always wanted to restart the company. Starting theskateboard shop put me back in touch with the team aspect ofskateboarding.

“After building my team for the store, it made me realizethat it was time to do the board company again. I have no desire tocompete with the rest of the guys right now. I’m doing it just to doit–and to be in skateboarding.”

Like many other shops, Circle A plays an important role in thelocal skate scene beyond providing equipme
nt. It offers a vibe and aplace to hang out and watch videos. The shop supports things likelocal demos and contests. In addition, the shop has a TV in thewindow facing the street. When it gets dark, skateboard videos areplayed for onlookers “to give the kid a proper vibe,” says Schmelzer.Part of that vibe emanates from the shop’s team, which is verydistinct from the Circle A Skateboard team. The shop team includesCaswell Berry, Pancho Moler, Darryl Angel, Jason Adams, SteveCaballero, Ryan Chadwick, and Eric J.

The Circle A board team features pros Doug Shoemaker andBrian Tucci, and ams Gizmo Cordura, Johnny Mannak, Dave Nelson,and Donny Kim.

Schmelzer’s role at the shop has hardly changed over theyears, he says, adding that he does most everything, “from buildingthe display racks to paying the vendors. I have a couple ofemployees, but the overall bulk of the duties are still the same. Iusually work about twelve hours a day, seven days a week.

“Right now I’m more concerned with having more free timethan making money.”

And that’s not a bad attitude. Business has clearly changedover the years at Circle A. “It’s gotten slower,” says Schmelzer, witha sigh. “The economy sucks, and skateboarding is on another side ofthe curve. You can’t climb forever. It’s time to weed out the kooks.”

The shop is self-financed, and Schmelzer checks his shop’sfinancial statements monthly and very closely. “I plan on starting mynew year quite different,” he says. “It’ll be two years in Decemberthat I’ll have complete records of every department. The first twoyears, my inventory kept climbing and climbing, so I couldn’t reallycompare one month to the next. Shoes are what we monitor theclosest. Every shoe, size, and color gets marked down every day.That’s probably been the most difficult thing to get a grasp on–whatto order, when to order it, and how much to order.”

As to whether Schmelzer is encouraged by the recent growthof the sport, he admits that for him it’s a tough question to answer.”I think the growth was exciting because it made it possible for meto start my store with no capital whatsoever,” he says. “But at thispoint, with it (skateboard sales) mellowing out, it would be actuallynice to get back to selling skateboards to skateboarders, as opposedto the people who just want ’em because they’re cool. What I’mdoing now is streamlining. It’s time to put timers on the lights andbe smarter at ordering.”

One of the worst mistakes he says he’s ever made with theshop is with shoes: “What made the shoe thing difficult in thebeginning when I started selling shoes is that they were very tech. Sowhen I started getting into heavy ordering with shoes, the styleschanged drastically. By the time I got my inventory up, everythingchanged overnight to go back to the basics. I hadn’t been in the shoebusiness long enough to know that a style was going out. But nowthat I’ve been in the business long enough, I have a betterunderstanding of what people want.”

The most important lesson learned, he says, is simple: “Do ityourself, and don’t expect it to always be gravy.”

Many parents come into Circle A with their kids. Over theyears they’ve been very supportive of the shop, and Schmelzerattributes their ongoing support to the politeness of his employees.That, and the atmosphere at the shop with the art gallery andresident DJ. “It makes their time spent here more enjoyable,” hesays.

Skateboarding has changed a lot since Schmelzer’s sponsoreddays. “Of course it’s more saturated and more image oriented,” hesays. “It’s also completely gnarlier and remains the most impressivesport to me.”

One would assume that a shop with such a richskateboarding history and local presence must have imparted asense of awareness, even pride, among San Jose’s youngskateboarders over the years.Schmelzer says this is becoming increasingly true: “That’s why weare where we are, and not just there to make mass sales like themall locations. Locals are learning the shop’s and (the brand) CircleA’s history. We’ve framed old ads and have trophies and old boardsall over the store, and they ask about it.”

Sighing, Schmelzer laughs. “It’s funny how the board historyhere in the store is actually older than a lot of the customers.”

He’s learned a lot over the years, and if he had to start fromsquare one and do it all over again, he says he would. “Oh yeah, I’dlove to do it all over again.”

Other Related Circle A Projects —

Circle A Skateboards

Founded in 1985 by Bob Schmelzer, the company ran until1989. Circle A then featured a now legendary skateboard team,including Duane Peters, Bill Weiss, Steve Godoy, Joe Lopes, ChrisGentry, Ricky Windsor, Todd Prince, Sole Technology’s Mark Waters,and an amateur Ed Templeton. Schmelzer also skated professionallyfor this team and says, “I think I was one of the few freestylers thatothers actually liked, and I think that was because of my (punk)music taste.”

Circle A Printing

“It’s a side business where I do OEM screenprint work, suchas T-shirts. I started screen-printing Faction T-shirts with Caballeroin high school. Once I graduated, I started working with Madridskateboards and was screenprinting skateboards there. From there Idid the board company. And with Circle A skateboardmanufacturing, we pressed and printed boards and shirts. I’ve beendoing it ever since. I basically just subcontract shirts for otherpeople.”

Circle A And Local Music

“One of my past employees, teamrider Jonny Mannak, is in acouple of local bands–the Cliftons and Clay Wheels. His brother is afamous hip-hop DJ by the name of Peanut Butter Wolf. DJ Fresh is acurrent employee, and he just got off tour with Nas. We’re currentlyworking on a video with a rap group called The Freestyle Fellowshipwith a song called “Can You Find The Level Of Difficulty In This?”