Rhode Island retailer rages into its third decade.
Everybody would like to make a living doing what they love to do. In the case of Sid Abbruzzi, founder of Water Brothers skate shop and Skater Island skatepark, he's found a way to be successful at what he loves to do, skateboard, and has fully immersed himself in it, literally, from the steel-wheel days to the present.
Water Brothers has been growing roots in the heart of the Newport, Rhode Island skate scene since Abbruzzi opened the first location in 1971. The concept for the skate shop was born in 1969 when he graduated from high school and considered ways to make a living through skateboarding. At the time, though, there wasn't an outlet to make ends meet as a professional skateboarder or surfer. “I started out as a good skater and a good surfer,” says Abbruzzi. “And people wanted to ride the board I was riding, so that's why I started selling stuff.”
He began by selling decks out of his mom's house, eventually getting a storefront location stocked with a dozen T-shirts and a couple complete skateboards–loose ball-bearing completes in those days. Soon Water Brothers began carrying components like Chicago and Sure Grip trucks, and by 1975 the shop was stocking Tracker trucks and Road Rider wheels. “We've always been there,” says Abbruzzi. “We are probably one of the more well-known skate shops around.”
Primarily focused on the hardcore skate scene, Water Brothers also caters to the needs of the local surfers; they carry a complete line of surfboards, wetsuits, and accessories. “We do incredible skate business,” says Abbruzzi. “The majority of our business is skate. We usually run equally with distributors and have accounts with every major brand.” Of the independent distributors he deals with, Abbruzzi says that most of his bulk orders are placed with Eastern Skateboard Supply and South Shore Distributing.
Water Brothers' dollar volumes are split pretty evenly between skate and surf. “Could be a little more with skate on the dailies, but with surf you get bigger numbers,” explains Abbruzzi. “You've got a 400-dollar board and a 300-dollar wetsuit walking out the store, and then you've got a 50-dollar skate.”
Nowadays, Water Brothers typically displays about 100 decks and carries eight shoe brands–in Newport they're the exclusive dealers for Etnies, Emerica, éS, Axion, Adio, and Duffs products. Holding the exclusive accounts for some major footwear brands “keeps the pressure on us for selling shoes,” says Abbruzzi. “We have more money wrapped up in shoes than we do in skateboarding hardgoods.” That doesn't seem all that difficult to do these days. The emphasis at Water Brothers has always been skate hardgoods, but shoes have really changed the way skate shops do business. “Sneakers have changed every shop in existence that wants to compete. They have to have money to have a sneaker inventory,” he says.
Abbruzzi originally financed the shop himself but brought in partner Rick Weibust in 1987. Although the partners and their accountant keep a close eye on the monthly reports, Abbruzzi takes an instinctual approach to monitoring his inventories. He attributes this instinct to the fact that he's at the shop or Skater Island interacting with his customers and shop team on a daily basis. “We're in here every day. If we aren't in here, we're riding. I'm with Donny Barley and Brian Anderson all the time,” says Abbruzzi. “All we do is talk about this stuff, so we are pretty much on top of the scene.” As of late, Abbruzzi's been encouraged by the recent growth of skateboarding and has noticed a lot more parents with younger kids–the six- to fifteen-year-old groupp–coming into the shop. The only difference with the younger generation of skaters is that Water Brothers now stocks shoe sizes down to kids' size one with all the major shoe brands.
Skater Island Skatepark opened in 1998 through a partnership between Abbruzzi and Doug and Mary O'Neill in nearby Middletown, though the idea for the park was always in the back of his mind. “It's just been an evolution of trying to get a place for the kids to skate,” says Abbruzzi. The skatepark evolved from a quarterpipe on the side of Water Brothers to a ten-foot steel vert ramp. Eventually Abbruzzi opened the 7,500-square-foot skatepark. Two expansions later, Skater Island now occupies 20,000 square feet and includes all the amenities that make up a fun factory.
Probably the most innovative feature about the skatepark is the five Livewave.com video cameras strategically located at the bowl, vert ramp, and three positions around the street course to offer different perspectives. Livewave.com, which has cameras trained on a couple local surf breaks, wanted to hook up real-time cameras to view Skater Island from their Web site. So now, before you go to Skater Island you can go online and check the park for crowds. Other park information can be found at Skater Island's Web site: skaterisland.com (no www, if you were wondering).
One nice thing about living in a region with frigid winters is knowing there's a heated, indoor park close by. Abbruzzi explains that business does slow down in the winter (“You don't get people coming in to buy a T-shirt this time of year,” he says), but having Skater Island open 365 days a year helps keep the hardgoods moving out of the shop during the cold season. “Hardgoods are going during winter, like decks, wheels, and trucks,” explains Abbruzzi. “And the park is busy as hell.”
Along with running Water Brothers, staying on top of the current skate trends, and skating almost every day, Abbruzzi organizes the Donny Barley Skate Camp at Skater Island, as well as demos and contests like the Billabong All Girl Skate Jam and the Converse North American Amateur Challenge. He says the response to the Donny Barley Skate Camp has been overwhelming. Last summer Skater Island ran two one-week camps that completely sold out. This year Abbruzzi has added Brian Anderson as a camp instructor and plans to double the number of camp sessions.
Currently there are two Water Brothers locations: the main store is in Newport, and a smaller pro shop is conveniently located at Skater Island, which is only three miles from the shop. Abbruzzi explains that because his park manager, Jason Flagherty, does such a great job, he doesn't have to spend much time there: “I'm at the shop every day. If I'm not at the shop, I'm at the park.” Abbruzzi also makes it out to California twice a year to attend the ASR Trade Expos. Wherever he happens to be, he is always engrossed in his business, and enjoying every minute of it.
If you happen to be in Newport, Rhode Island, stop by Water Brothers at 39 Memorial Boulevard and check out one of the oldest skate shops running.