True To Its Roots

San Jose, California.

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

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

Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose is the long-established capital of the nation’s dotcom industry. And although the logical assumption, generally, is that lots of skateboarders equals 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 80s professional freestyle skater Bob Schmelzer. He founded and ran Circle A Skateboards from 1985 to 1989, and considered the shop an outgrowth of that project after the brand’s demise.

Schmelzer opened the shop to fill what he refers to as a void in the San Jose skateboard scene. While the city’s downtown area had a lot of skateboarders, Schmelzer says the lack of a downtown ‘core skate shop formed a conspicuous void. “There was a definite need for skateboarding to be more present and more visible downtown,” he says. “The skateboarders needed a shop, and the town needed retail.”

Although the shop has a default monopoly of sorts–being the only skate shop downtown–Schmelzer says that hasn’t particularly 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 who skate and actually live downtown.”

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

In terms of the size, the shop is comfortably spacious at a total of 1,600 square feet. However, situated in an 1842 Victorian house, 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 retail area is split between a front and back room. A long hallway connects shoes and hardgoods at the front of the store, to the back of the store, where all the softgoods are. The hallway is the art gallery, which features monthly art exhibits spotlighting local and area artists.

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

As for what percentage of the shop’s sales he attributes to hardgoods versus softgoods, Schmelzer suggests that although the quantities of hardgoods are greater–generating approximately 60 percent 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 predicts the numbers are about to change with the shop’s recent development of a more comprehensive softgoods department.

Circle A is centrally located in downtown San Jose. “Our location is definitely beneficial to business, because I haven’t spent any money on mainstream advertising,” says Schmelzer. “All my advertising has been done through my team or through visibility. It’s kind of tough downtown because there’s no real retail environment here.”

Much of the blame for that lies in the post-dotcom recession. “During the dotcom era, office space was going for such a high dollar 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 Silicon Valley. More energy was put toward office space rather than towardroper retail space.”

San Jose’s economy today is definitely not booming like it was during the dotcom heyday. Still a computer-based industry hub of sorts, the economy is relatively strong, but not exactly thriving. San Jose has definitely been affected by the current nationwide recession. In mid July, The San Jose Mercury News reported that one of San Jose?s largest employers, computer company Intel, announced it was going to slash 4,000 jobs from a total workforce of over 80,000, in order to reduce costs. Although this is just one example of an area company, the news has repeated on a smaller scale 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 by students and low-income residents, downtown sits apart from the more affluent suburban population who tend to opt instead for suburban strip-mall comforts. City council is working on a number of downtown revitalization schemes to stimulate both the downtown economy and traffic in the area.

This, combined with the downtown area’s obvious need for a public skatepark, is why Schmelzer has teamed forces with city council. Well, sort of. He’s joined SOFA (South Of First Area)–a major downtown redevelopment scheme in the works. The committee’s mission is to raise awareness of some of the issues affecting downtown residents in the area south of First Street, which the shop falls into. “The reason I’ve joined that committee is to have some influence on the needs of the town and trying to get it away from just parking (issues),” says Schmelzer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like many other shops, Circle A plays an important role in the local skate scene beyond providing equipment. It offers a vibe and a place to hang out and watch videos. The shop supports things like local demos and contests. In addition, the shop has a TV in the window facing the street. When it gets dark, skateboard videos are played for onlookers “to give the kid a proper vibe,” says Schmelzer. Part of that vibe emanates from the shop’s team, which is very distinct from the Circle A Skateboard team. The shop team includes Caswell Berry, Pancho Moler, Darryl Angel, Jason Adams, Steve Caballero, Ryan Chadwick, and Eric J.

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

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

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

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

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

As to whether Schmelzer is encouraged by the recent growth of 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 me to start my store with no capital whatsoever,” he says. “But at this point, with it (skateboard sales) mellowing out, it would be actually nice to get back to selling skateboards to skateboarders, as opposed to the people who just want ’em because they’re cool. What I’m doing now is streamlining. It’s time to put timers on the lights and be smarter at ordering.”

One of the worst mistakes he says he’s ever made with the shop is with shoes: “What made the shoe thing difficult in the beginning when I started selling shoes is that they were very tech. So when I started getting into heavy ordering with shoes, the styles changed drastically. By the time I got my inventory up, everything changed overnight to go back to the basics. I hadn’t been in the shoe business long enough to know that a style was going out. But now that I’ve been in the business long enough, I have a better understanding of what people want.”

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

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

Skateboarding has changed a lot since Schmelzer’s sponsored days. “Of course it’s more saturated and more image oriented,” he says. “It’s also completely gnarlier and remains the most impressive sport to me.”

One would assume that a shop with such a rich skateboarding history and local presence must have imparted a sense of awareness, even pride, among now. I’m doing it just to do it–and to be in skateboarding.”

Like many other shops, Circle A plays an important role in the local skate scene beyond providing equipment. It offers a vibe and a place to hang out and watch videos. The shop supports things like local demos and contests. In addition, the shop has a TV in the window facing the street. When it gets dark, skateboard videos are played for onlookers “to give the kid a proper vibe,” says Schmelzer. Part of that vibe emanates from the shop’s team, which is very distinct from the Circle A Skateboard team. The shop team includes Caswell Berry, Pancho Moler, Darryl Angel, Jason Adams, Steve Caballero, Ryan Chadwick, and Eric J.

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

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

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

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

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

As to whether Schmelzer is encouraged by the recent growth of 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 me to start my store with no capital whatsoever,” he says. “But at this point, with it (skateboard sales) mellowing out, it would be actually nice to get back to selling skateboards to skateboarders, as opposed to the people who just want ’em because they’re cool. What I’m doing now is streamlining. It’s time to put timers on the lights and be smarter at ordering.”

One of the worst mistakes he says he’s ever made with the shop is with shoes: “What made the shoe thing difficult in the beginning when I started selling shoes is that they were very tech. So when I started getting into heavy ordering with shoes, the styles changed drastically. By the time I got my inventory up, everything changed overnight to go back to the basics. I hadn’t been in the shoe business long enough to know that a style was going out. But now that I’ve been in the business long enough, I have a better understanding of what people want.”

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

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

Skateboarding has changed a lot since Schmelzer’s sponsored days. “Of course it’s more saturated and more image oriented,” he says. “It’s also completely gnarlier and remains the most impressive sport to me.”

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

Sighing, Schmelzer laughs. “It’s funny how the board history here 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 from square one and do it all over again, he says he would. “Oh yeah, I’d love to do it all over again.”

Other Related Circle A Projects —

Circle A Skateboards

Founded in 1985 by Bob Schmelzer, the company ran until 1989. Circle A then featured a now legendary skateboard team, including Duane Peters, Bill Weiss, Steve Godoy, Joe Lopes, Chris Gentry, Ricky Windsor, Todd Prince, Sole Technology’s Mark Waters, and an amateur Ed Templeton. Schmelzer also skated professionally for this team and says, “I think I was one of the few freestylers that others 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, such as T-shirts. I started screen-printing Faction T-shirts with Caballero in high school. Once I graduated, I started working with Madrid skateboards and was screenprinting skateboards there. From there I did the board company. And with Circle A skateboard manufacturing, we pressed and printed boards and shirts. I’ve been doing it ever since. I basically just subcontract shirts for other people.”

Circle A And Local Music

“One of my past employees, teamrider Jonny Mannak, is in a couple of local bands–the Cliftons and Clay Wheels. His brother is a famous hip-hop DJ by the name of Peanut Butter Wolf. DJ Fresh is a current employee, and he just got off tour with Nas. We’re currently working on a video with a rap group called The Freestyle Fellowship with a song called “Can You Find The Level Of Difficulty In This?”ong San Jose’s young skateboarders over the years.Schmelzer says this is becoming increasingly true: “That’s why we are where we are, and not just there to make mass sales like the mall locations. Locals are learning the shop’s and (the brand) Circle A’s history. We’ve framed old ads and have trophies and old boards all over the store, and they ask about it.”

Sighing, Schmelzer laughs. “It’s funny how the board history here 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 from square one and do it all over again, he says he would. “Oh yeah, I’d love to do it all over again.”

Other Related Circle A Projects —

Circle A Skateboards

Founded in 1985 by Bob Schmelzer, the company ran until 1989. Circle A then featured a now legendary skateboard team, including Duane Peters, Bill Weiss, Steve Godoy, Joe Lopes, Chris Gentry, Ricky Windsor, Todd Prince, Sole Technology’s Mark Waters, and an amateur Ed Templeton. Schmelzer also skated professionally for this team and says, “I think I was one of the few freestylers that others 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, such as T-shirts. I started screen-printing Faction T-shirts with Caballero in high school. Once I graduated, I started working with Madrid skateboards and was screenprinting skateboards there. From there I did the board company. And with Circle A skateboard manufacturing, we pressed and printed boards and shirts. I’ve been doing it ever since. I basically just subcontract shirts for other people.”

Circle A And Local Music

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