Slam City Skates

“London’s not really designed to accommodate skateboarding. Nestled in the underbelly of a nation swept with incessant rain and wind for six months of the year, London can feel like an outpost city resting on the frontier of a gray Arctic territory.” —Ollie Barton (TransWorld SKATEboarding, Volume 19 Number 11, November 2001).

“London? Oh, dog’s bollocks, I dunno. It rains a lot there doesn’t it?” —Alex Moul

London, perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world and home to a population of over thirteen-million, has a reputation for offering very little to skateboarders. On the contrary, London does have a lot for skateboarders beyond cobblestone paths and endless drizzle. It offers skateboarders something different–a unique unconventional patch on the massive mosaic that makes London, well, what it is.

In the thick of it all–for almost two decades now–is Slam City Skates.

Paul Sunman, one of London’s more prominent freestyle skaters from the 1980s, is one of the partners at Slam City Skates. He admits that the store wouldn’t have had the influence on the London skate scene it has had over the years without the strong staff the shop’s consistently employed over the years: “With most stores, the staff has been the major element of it, and through the past it is them who have maintained the ethos of the owners. From its (Slam’s) conception, it was created to cater to the needs of skateboarders and those who appreciate skateboarding.”

Slam City opened in 1986, and the shop has been at its Covent Garden location since 1988.

Heroin Skateboards pro and Welshman Chris Pulman is the shop manager, and Seth Curtis is Slam City’s assistant manager. Curtis started working there four years ago. There are currently three full-time, and four part-time employees, plus the shop team of about five or six skaters. Curtis says the shop acts as a stop-off point for all the Blueprint, Unabomber, and Heroin riders (the three strongest teams in Britain).

Slam City’s location plays a major factor in its sales. Nestled in the heart of London’s fashionable Covent Garden district, it’s no mystery why the shop’s softgood sales are about 70 percent of its total sales, versus hardgoods, which make up only 30 percent. “Plus or minus five percent either way,” says Curtis, who adds that these proportions are typical of London. “We’re based in a fashion-conscious city. This shop is London’s FTC or Supreme. It’s also the forum for all the skaters who make up the scene. The fashion and clothing side of it is also a major part of us–the softgood sales help us buy more hardgoods.” This in turn, explains Seth, pushes more skateboarders to come and hang out in the shop, making Slam City what it is. The shop, which runs a mail-order operation through its regularly updated Web site, attributes much of its success to e-commerce. “Hardgoods are catching up greatly, mainly because mail order is doing amazing right now. And British skateboarding product is selling as well, if not better, than the American stuff because we try to push most British brands.

“All our mail order is done through the shopping cart on the Web site, and it’s becoming more and more up-to-date as it becomes more successful. Probably a good 35 percent of our total sales are mail-order from all over the country. No European orders–we just stick to the British Isles,” says Curtis.

Slam City doesn’t carry any pricepoint stuff, and opts instead to offer all of its British lines as pricepoint. “British boards are 44.95 pounds sterling (approximately 67 USD), and U.S. boards are 55.95 pounds sterling (approximately 84 USD),” says Curtis, adding that of the shop’s total board sales, 50-percent is of British boards. “Mainly Blueprint, Unabomber, and Heroin–these are the three main brands as far as British companies go, and they sell as well as U.S. brands right now.”

The store’s underlying support for Britishh brands is clear after even a quick glance around the store. The board racks are well stocked with Blueprint, Unabomber, and Heroin boards. The best-selling video at the shop since last summer is the Blueprint video Waiting For The World. Since its release, Slam City alone has sold close to a thousand copies.

At 800 square feet, the shop is a bit crammed full with stuff, says Curtis, and includes snowboard gear part of the year. Snowboard gear is only sold in season, and makes up about twenty to 25 percent of total sales between October and January.

Slam City Skates’ advertising campaign is limited to Sidewalk Surfer, with a double-page mail-order ad in every issue of Britain’s most popular skate magazine. In addition to advertising in Sidewalk, the shop sponsors many events in and around London. “We sponsor most skater-owned and -operated events in London. And the Mark Gonzales events–a lot of crossover events between art and skateboarding,” says Curtis. “We work closely with Stüssy in terms of the same thing–mainly crossover, really.”

Asked how business has grown over the years, Sunman replies with token English dryness: “We’re the only real skateboard shop, so from that point of view, our business has gone from strength to strength.”

The average price for a pair of skateboard shoes at the shop, Curtis explains, ranges anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds sterling (approximately 60 to 150 USD). Scotland’s John Rattray–enormously popular in the British skateboarding scene and a member of the Circa team–may be a huge reason why Circa shoes sell very well in Britain. “Circas are the best-sellers,” says Curtis. “The JT301 is the best seller, and then the Muska 902.”

The stock-control system at Slam City isn’t computerized, so inventory must be kept manually, which isn’t always very efficient. Realizing this, Sunman says they’re currently reviewing the system.He also admits shoplifting is a problem anywhere in retail, especially when it’s busy: “We try to be as diligent as we can.”

Slam City Skates, entirely self-financed, is not particularly supportive of doing shop-logo decks, although Sunman admits they’ve offered them in the past. “We’ve probably done it about seven times since the shop opened in 1988,” he says. “It’s been done in the past–anything to avoid selling blank boards, really. It’s not the highest on our list of things to do. Right now there are plenty of British brands we support.”

In terms of future plans for Slam City Skates, Sunman says, “We’ve got a number of things we’re doing in the next twelve to eighteen months,” although he wouldn’t elaborate.

Prior to Slam’s inception, the only other skate shop in London was Alpine Action, which closed in 1985. Even at that time, Slam City was the only shop close to central London that offered skateboard hardgoods. The name Slam City Skates was the product of a brainstorming session between the company’s partners. “We had a whole list of names, and (the result) is a combination name we came up with,” says Sunman. Slam City Distribution was started in 1989 and is run as an entirely separate entity from the shop.

Perhaps the primary change the shop has observed amongst local skateboarders over the years is the increased interest in British brands. “There’s been less reliance on U.S. brands,” says Curtis. “The general non-skater interest has always been really high because of the location. We’ve got a wide variety of people coming in.”

Curtis shifts his eyes to some kids watching a skateboard video playing in the shop, and adds, “We always try to make kids aware of the fact we’ve been here supporting skateboarding and skateboarders since the beginning.”