Walk into Labor skate shop and it is immediately clear the person running it cares. From the brands represented on the walls, to the independent videos behind the cash register, to the flyer promoting a local event on the counter, Labor is the quintessential example of why skater-owned skate shops matter. At the helm is ultra passionate, well spoken and hard working James Rewolinski. By wholeheartedly supporting local and independent brands, filmmakers and the skate community at large, James has established Labor as a mainstay of New York skateboarding.
How did a kid who grew up skateboarding in Milwaukee come to New York and open one of the most respected skate shops in the world? This is the story of Labor Skate Shop.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into skating?
I grew up in Milwaukee, WI. It’s about 90 miles north of Chicago and home to about 1 million people. I got into skating through my dad. For my 14th birthday, I went to this store called Torque Center. It was the kind of store that had everything a teenage kid could ever want. Tons of BMX bikes, snowboards, skateboards, clothes, motorcycle parts, the whole works. It was out in the middle of nowhere, wasn’t near where we lived, and my parents hated driving there. My dad drove me there with the intention of buying some jeans or a tee shirt. I left with some blind jeans, and when we were almost home, my dad asked me if I would rather have a skateboard instead of some jeans. I thought a skateboard was out of the question due to price, but I said of course! We went back the next day, returned the jeans, and I got one of the pre-made completes. It was a Dan Drehobl Think deck, with Venture Lo’s (green bushings), NMB bearings, and Ricky Higgins Single White Female Race wheels, 40mm.
I know you travelled around Europe and went to school for years. Where did you go and what did you do at school?
My sister married a man from the UK and they lived in London for about 7-8 years. I used to go there whenever I could, and used London as my home base to explore other parts of Europe. It’s really easy to get around in Europe by rail and low cost airliners. I went to school for Philosophy and Urban Planning for my B.A., and in that process met a professor who believed in me and thought I would be able to get funding to complete an M.A. I wasn’t sure, but applied for the program and got accepted with departmental funding. I was a TA and completed a masters in Geography with an Urban political specialization.
When and why did you move to New York?
I got burnt out on the bickering and politics in academia, and I also had a strange brush with death via this rare medical condition. So, after I finished my masters, I decided to call it a day and move to NYC in 2007 with the intention of working in Urban Planning in some capacity. I had a lot of friends that lived here and it provided a great network to get things moving. Urban Planning jobs didn’t exactly work out, and I ended up working retail, getting fired when the economy melted down, and then working at a restaurant for a few years.
What was the medical condition?
The last time I went to Europe I started to get these pains in my side. I thought it was heartburn, but it turned out to be my liver. I got back to the US and had all these tests done. They thought I just had foodborne hepatitis, so they told me to sleep and drink fluids. I kept getting worse, so they stuck a camera in my liver to see what was going on. I woke up from the anesthesia to my parents standing over me crying and they told me I had cancer. A few days later they told me I didn’t have cancer, but I had a rare bile duct condition, and even with a liver transplant, I would most likely live 10-12 years longer. That turned out to be false, too. They put a stent in my bile duct, and that helped the problem. They still never quite understood what happened, as I was never a heavy drinker. Needless to say it was a stressful time.
That’s so crazy.
Yeah, it was a life altering experience.
So after all that, you’ve got your masters, but are working at a restaurant in New York. What made you decide to open a shop?
I worked at a skate shop during college, and it was a great experience. I guess I always wanted to open a shop, I just didn’t know where and when. I’ve always been interested in retail, even if I didn’t have a ton of cash to spend. It was fun to see skate shops and all kinds of shops when I was travelling around Europe. I used to actually plan trips around checking out stores. Street Machine in Paris, Free Skate in Barcelona, and of course, Slam City Skates in London were all on the list. When Comme Des Garcons started doing the Guerilla Stores, I made trips to check out the original one in Berlin, as well as the Barcelona store, and I checked out the Warsaw shop as well.
In terms of opening Labor, my decision was honestly hinged on Autumn. That shop held it down and I wasn’t about to step on any toes. I come from a place where you don’t fuck with existing, respected shops in your area. You either find a different place, or do something else with yourself. When it seemed that Autumn was closed for good, I started to make moves to get Labor going.
I remember you told me before you opened Labor you actually talked to a couple other local shops about it.
Yeah, I don’t think you should open a shop in someone else’s backyard. A lot of this is based on my background in skate retail, and the way I saw things go down in the past. I looked at a space that was pretty close to an existing shop, and even though I thought what I was doing was very different, I spoke to them directly and let them know what I was planning on doing. I asked them what they thought, and even though they didn’t say they would be upset, I could tell that it wouldn’t have been a good move, so I passed on the space.
What are your goals with the shop?
I actually hope that what we do, the brands we carry, the people we support and the bulk of the customers and friends who support us answer this question. I guess in terms of goals, I just want to keep supporting and nurturing skateboarding in NYC because I think it’s in a really, really good place right now. All of us know that it’s always been amazing, but I think now, we are getting a lot more attention for skaters that live here and put in a lot of hard work.
You’re selective about the brands and product you bring into the shop. What do you look for in a brand before bringing it in?
I try to have a large selection of decks at all times. We carry a lot of things in response to what our customers want and ask for. In addition, I have to have some interest in the brand and what they are about. I usually like to see what the brand does in terms of design, presentation, team riders and video content. Of course, there are brands we don’t and won’t carry, but I truly believe we will have a deck that most people would want to buy.
In terms of the other non-hardgood based brands, yes, I would say we are quite selective. It’s just hard, because there are so many clothing companies, and a lot of the skate clothing companies haven’t exactly been too good at segmenting their lines for different types of stores. As a result, a tiny store like ours can’t compete with huge stores, which can afford to carry all 86 styles of snapback from whatever brand. For us, we do the best with a lot of our friend’s brands that have a connection to NYC.
What excites you about working in skateboarding today?
I think there’s a lot to be excited about with skateboarding today. To me, all the variation in style, spots and trick selection are making for some of the most amazing skateboarding I’ve seen in my 20 plus years of doing it. I love the fact that by working in the shop, I get to meet a vast group of skaters from all across the city and the world. I’ve had kids in the shop from Alabama and Kazakhstan and everywhere in between. Nothing gets me more hyped to see groups of kids all over making the best of what they have and really, really enjoying skateboarding in a simple, pure way. The other day a couple came in from Kuwait to buy their kids skateboards. Doesn’t get much better than that.
What can brands do to support skate shops?
I think the best thing a brand can do is understand that there needs to be a separation of product between what’s available to bigger chain stores and what’s available to smaller shops. Even with that tiered structure it can be tough, but without that, it’s next to impossible for me to carry a lot of brands.
Certain brands like Supreme and Huf, started out more as shops/boutiques and then grew into their own lines. You started to make small runs of Labor product; some hats, tees, fleece. Do you see growing as your own brand with your own line as part of the long-term strategy with the shop?
We have been making some Labor brand goods, but I’m not trying to enter the private label realm and compete on that level. I think what we make usually compliments what we do in the shop, and it’s a great reflection of what we are about. We might make a few new things in the next few seasons, but I feel like I see a lot of people looking to the likes of Supreme, and trying to mimic, albeit on a smaller scale, what they are doing on the retail aesthetic side, private label side, and all angles. That’s not what we are going for. After all, they do what they do really well, and it’s a lot different from us, so I’m not aiming for that. If we can continue to keep skateboards and shoes under and on people’s feet, I’ll be happy. Along the way, we may develop the Labor brand, but I see it as more of a compliment to the skate business we do. I hope to be gripping boards and lacing shoes until I retire or until whoever takes over for me gets sick of my stories and kicks me out.
How important is social media in marketing a skate shop?
It’s helpful and empowering for a smaller shop, as kids are pretty directly connected to you via social media.
What social platforms are you using and how are you using them?
Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr are all used, but Instagram is the primary channel we use. There are times when people come in when they see something we just got in stock and pick it up.
Does ecomm make up a big part of your business?
It doesn’t make up a huge part of our shop, but I would say it’s important. We have some great customers all over that support Labor via our website.
Is it growing? Where’s the furthest place you shipped something?
Ecomm is tough because there is obviously so much competition. Instead of selling everything online, we try to focus on the things that we sell well in store. The harder to find goods are best for obvious reasons. We’ve shipped a fair amount to Japan, Australia and most countries in Europe.
Are local events still important to a skate shop?
I think events are important. We don’t have a huge staff, so we have to make the most of the events we do. We host All City Showdown in NYC, and I think that’s one of the best street skating contests going right now. It really gives some shine to the skaters throwing down on a daily basis, and is a great time.
OK, let’s end with a couple mellower questions. Any crazy incidents ever go down at the shop?
Ha! I’ll keep this one pretty light. Nothing too crazy, but one time I was at the shop helping a family pick out a board, and this model came in from the casting agency upstairs from the shop. She straight away started going behind the counter to look at socks, interrupting me and asking questions while I was in mid-sentence with the family, and I asked her nicely not to go behind the counter. She completely disregarded what I was saying, kept going behind the counter, and I kept asking her to remove herself from behind the register. Finally, I lost my cool and started yelling at her. She clearly had never had a person tell her no, and demanded to see my manager, and wanted to buy her weed socks. I told her she was talking to the manager, and I said the weed socks weren’t for sale now or ever for her, and that she had to leave immediately. She demanded to buy the socks again and again, and we were just sitting there screaming at each other. Finally she left, weed sock-less, cursing the whole way out.
I went back to the family, smiled and finished up. When they were almost done, the mom said to the dad, “Honey, just don’t touch the socks.” We all laughed and that was that. A couple weeks later, I was looking at NYFW runway shows, and I clicked on a very well known designer’s (who will remain nameless) runway photos. Staring me right in the face was the weed sock maniac, as the face of this particular campaign. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Most commonly asked question at the shop?
Luckily, I’m a talker, so there aren’t too many questions that drive me crazy. As long as the question doesn’t involve getting a discount or something for free, we’re good.
What would you tell someone that wants to start his or her own shop?
I would say what everyone says, don’t do it! Seriously though, do your research on the area you are looking at, make sure there are no existing shops and be ready to work hard for a long time. It’s a really rewarding process, and being part of skateboarding outweighs any of the stress involved with opening and running a shop.