Dave Mackey: a new approach to the skater owned shop
Real recognise real! Independent skate stores are the pillars holding up our community; worldwide they support each other, their customers, their scene and skateboarding as a whole. Why the fuck would anyone not support one? Unfortunately it’s getting increasingly harder to survive as a skater owned shop, especially without compromising legitimacy. Liverpool’s mighty Lost Art shop closed its doors after 17 years only to re-open five months later with a different approach. Dave Mackey gives us his insights into adapting, diversifying and the independent shop community’s support.
Interview by Guy Jones
Could you start off by explaining how the previous Lost Art closed and how you transitioned into opening the Useless Wooden Toys Society?
The reason for the old shop’s demise was firstly how expensive it was for that unit. Obviously cost of rent rates and staffing of that size is quite a lot. Another reason is this part of town. When we first moved to Bold Street, the area was a retail destination in the city, but over the last few years shops have shut down due to rent costs and more bars and restaurants have opened, making it more of a place to go after you’ve been shopping. We saw our passing trade diminish over the years. Another reason is the popularity of certain brands had gone down in recent years, due to two brands opening up to larger sportswear chains. Originally Lost Art was the only account for one of these brands to which the total went up to 17 accounts in Liverpool alone.
Did these large brands benefit the store at first?
Having Nike SB involved in particular helped keep the doors open for many years for myself and for many other stores and then we were kind of led to the drinking hole as it were. We had our egos massaged by them and we also backed their brand 100%. Once the Janoski trend hit, it was the big sports stores that really milked that and took sales away from smaller core stores who had supported Nike for a number of years. As skate stores we kind of let that happen, you can’t blame Nike for doing their business. We took our eye off what we were about for a few years. I felt for Lost Art that is, we kind of forgot a little bit about skateboarding and we were more brand led as a business. I often found myself thinking less about hardware orders and more so about footwear orders, which for a skate store is definitely not a good thing, especially a core skate store.
Do you think this is relevant for a lot of the other skate shops in Europe?
Absolutely yeah, I’ve thought about it long and hard since the store closed at the end of July. The time we have on social media to talk about what we do as skate shop is very small, you have a window throughout the day to post and inevitably you post Nike products, or big brands that you feel are going to bring in the most revenue. You very seldom talk on social media about the fucking rad things that go on within skateboarding, or the rad things you’re doing as a skate shop; you know the t-shirts, the graphics you design, the skaters who ride for your shop, etc. I feel that’s a trend through all of skateboarding in Europe, maybe even the world; we don’t have enough time to talk about the rad shit that we do, and that was the one thing I wanted to do on my social media platform once the store closed: to talk about the rad fucking stuff that goes on in British skateboarding.
Is that why you kept the Lost Art Instagram alive?
Definitely yeah, the store closed due to mounting debts and it got to a point where I physically couldn’t do it by myself, it was just me who owned Lost Art at the time and with the debts, and the constant pleading with brands to give you a bit more time to pay, or to send more products, it’s a full time job. It really is a huge burden on skate shops, as much as they try and help as brands, the people you converse with within these brands, they don’t really have a voice and once it goes above them to accounts, or to larger departments, especially legal departments, they don’t care who you are or what you’ve done for skateboarding. They just want the matter resolved quickly and often it’s a threatening message that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth after a while. As a skateboarder and as a skate shop supporting certain brands, you see these threatening messages come through. You just kind of think ‘what’s the point?’ We’re just trying to do good shit for you. I understand it’s a business but there has to be leeway sometimes.
In respect to revenue coming in from non-skateboarders as opposed to skaters it has to be a hard balance to achieve the core to profit ratio, considering the demographic. Skaters also often prefer to spend their money on intoxicants anyway.
It’s a really difficult road to travel being a core skate store; you can’t deviate from the core too much or you get labelled a ‘sell out’ or ridiculed for it. For instance when there was a scooter boom, I know a lot of people sold scooters. People were diversifying into other products that brought revenue in, but as a core store that sets their shop out as their vision, you can’t really deviate from that road. Often you really find it hard when it goes out of popularity and you try and maintain that sense of core, and then sometimes the core brands don’t back you at the time when you need them most. With that in mind, supporting those big brands definitely led us to not being able to support the smaller independent brands, like Soletech, Lakai and HUF, which is fucking shit. I feel as a skate store we’ve been harmful to these brands who ultimately deserve our support and that’s a really shitty thing to have on my shoulders.
There are a lot of peaks and troughs in regards to the struggle of keeping a S.O.S. (Skate owned Shop) going on, what are some of the things you’ve had to do through the tougher times? I remember you saying how you had to labour to keep the doors open?
That was around 2002/2003. I couldn’t afford to keep my friends working in the shop so I chose to go labouring every day of the week to pay Ash (Wilson) a wage, in the hope that at some point business would pick up and I could go back to work in the store. Unfortunately it didn’t work too well and I had to bring in a partner at that time to keep the shop alive and subsequently he wasn’t able to support it either. The shop had been through many formats: I had a partner with it; I sold the shop for a year then got it back. These are things you have to do sometimes to keep it going and finding work outside of skateboarding is definitely something I had to do to keep it going. The worst thing I’ve ever done is putting all of my money and my family’s money into the store. That’s another reason why I had to shut the shop: I took a loan from my parents to kind of help through Christmas last year and unfortunately all that money just disappeared paying bills and I was unable to pay them back. I still haven’t paid them back, and that’s something that’s really shit for me to deal with. I get pretty upset when I think about it, I just kept ploughing money into this thing thinking it’ll be right soon, it’ll be right. It was a fucking hard decision for me to make closing the shop. I really didn’t have an idea that it was going to come back. Keeping the Instagram account alive was just me trying to cling to that dream that Lost Art is bigger than skateboarding, bigger than just selling products. For me it’s never been about a store, it’s about the community we support and I feel we’re a very important part of the community.
So how did the new shop come about and the reasoning behind the name?
The Useless Wooden Toys Society was a video night we would do at Lost Art to get people together to watch old videos, then we’d go skating or for a beer. It was a different way of getting everybody together in the social aspect of skateboarding, which has always been hugely important to me. Going back a little bit, I had to close Lost Art as the store; Lost Art skateboarding limited was the name, so I had to liquidate it had to go into bankruptcy. Then there’s everything that goes along with that, I wasn’t able to use the name as a shop anymore, so the Useless Wooden Toys Society has been set up by my friends, Pad, Mick and my partner Kelly; they now own Useless Wooden Toys Society and have bought back Lost Art as the brand name.
Community value seems to be the most important thing to you and the relationships you build with other independents as well.
I feel that’s the community I’m talking about, the independent community we’re a part of whether it’s bars, music, coffee shops, etc., we all support one another and being a part of that is everything. Like I say the hardest thing was taking myself out of that community by closing the shop. We all help each other and I feel as an independent that’s what we should be doing. When I see American Express adverts saying shop local it just makes me laugh. American Express don’t know the first fucking thing about shopping local. Don’t even pretend: shopping local isn’t going to Sainsbury’s. Shopping local is those small stores that are owned and run by people who work and live in that community and the money stays in that community.
There’s far more help and respect within this community. I remember kids coming in with grip over the cellophane on a board from some novice and having no idea what to do. You’d help as much as you could and honestly as well.
As a skate shop you probably would have given that kid a sheet of free grip tape, you’d fix it and give them the grip for free. Or you would knock money off some shoes, give them bearings, find boards in the back that aren’t selling and sell them for cheaper. That’s what you do as skate shop. You know what it’s like as a skateboarder, it’s an expensive culture to be a part of; shoes get wrecked very quickly and as skateboarders you realise that. It’s bad for business, but it’s great for your self worth because that kid goes away absolutely fucking stoked that he or she has stumbled upon this community of like-minded people and peers that they can look up to for a number of years.
You’re unpaid social workers. I always wanted Lost Art to be like that, and thankfully it always has. It’s reached far outside of Liverpool, people respect it far and wide and that’s because it’s not just me, it’s not just those who worked at the shop, it’s everybody who talks about and has respect for the shop as part of our community. I could name about 20 shops alone in the UK that do it equally as well. There are so many stores that deserve to be there and deserve to be looked after by brands and skateboarding as a whole. I feel that isn’t happening and if those stores were to close, it would have a huge impact on the whole scene.
Is the #Wearelostart hashtag a way of further trying to unite the SOS community?
We are stronger as skate store but the hashtag was more about the reasons why I started Lost Art in 1999. I felt that the skateboarding being promoted at that time wasn’t the skateboarding I grew up loving and wanting to be a part of and that’s the reason for the name Lost Art. That type of skateboarding was almost lost to that Tony Hawk big brand generation of skateboarding that was coming in at that stage. It’s even more relevant nowadays than for the core skate shops that started between ‘98-2005; there’s not too many of those left and nothing has really replaced them and there’s a handful that need saving. We are the lost art; we are the last of the Mohicans as it were (laughs)… We’re taking one last stand. There’s no better time for skateboarding because everything is acceptable: whatever clothes you wear, whatever footwear, whatever style of board or style of skateboarding you prefer, it’s all out there. It’s all accessible now and it’s all fucking amazing. There’s so much good stuff happening skate shop owners are so bogged down by the mundane and the problems they have to deal with that they don’t get a chance to talk about all the good stuff. There’s so much negativity and bitching and that’s the one thing I hate. I feel footwear brands are a massive part of the problem and that’s why we don’t sell footwear in Useless Wooden Toys Society. We are a core skate store; we only support skateboarding. We only have skate hardware and clothing by my friends or Lost Art. Unless we collaborate with shoe brands we won’t sell them. It’s a bold move… It’s probably unchartered waters as far as a skate store is concerned – to go back to an original skate store format.
There’s also the accessibility of getting cheaper shoes elsewhere.
That was inevitably going to happen as the market got opened up to larger sportswear chains that deal in volume and numbers – they can slash the prices and move on. You can’t survive as a skate shop if large sportswear shops are selling shoes for thirty quid. Of course kids are going to buy the cheaper ones and they fucking should. I remember being that kid. I remember searching for shoes… We’d skate in any shit footwear we could find, often the cheapest because we knew we’d wear through them quickly. One thing I’ve always done and something most of the kids in Liverpool have always done, is they come and buy their fucking skateboards and hardware from the skate shop.
Well it’s what you set out to do in the first place really.
The thing I’ve always wanted to support is skateboarding and I feel we best do that by supporting hardware brands, small independent clothing brands from our friends and our Lost Art brand, which is our best seller anyway. We would always fall short of achieving our full potential because we had to use any money we had to pay off footwear orders to get another load of footwear in. It’s a vicious cycle and without a doubt a false economy.
The new store is basically everything I wanted as a skate shop as a kid. It’s going back to the original format and we’ll focus on promoting what we’re doing as well as promoting all the other rad shit other skate shops are doing because I feel we should champion them just as much we champion ourselves.
It seems like different formats have to be adopted to survive and if it benefits you and your community then why not?
There’s a lot of marketing companies that brands reach out to who don’t have a fucking clue about skateboarding and really don’t treat it with the respect it deserves and that’s fucking painful to watch. I’m sick of it. We should be partnering up with other like-minded business. There are businesses I looked at, Nick Palomino for instance: low overheads, a little warehouse space tucked away and incredible online presence! You go to his site and you instantly have site envy; he has everything you want to talk about and he talks about it in the best possible manner because he fucking loves skateboarding. But he doesn’t have the bullshit to deal with of having a store that’s open every day of the week, paying for staffing, bills, footwear orders, etc. He doesn’t have those issues so he’s able to survive, bat down the hatches when need be and talk about all the things we want to talk about.
But there are also stores like Beats Workin. It became a coffee shop skate shop, and as skate shops I feel we need to diversify a bit and partner up with other independents be it a barber’s, a tattooist, or a coffee shop. I feel those communities are the same and we’re all talking to the same people, it helps with large overheads, it brings other people into your store and keeps it fresh. I feel that’s what we should be doing: adapt and move forward. If you stay stagnant, the ten ‘til six retail mentality is so archaic you can’t possibly survive. Nobody shops ten ‘til six now, they shop online or on their lunch break, nobody walks into stores anymore so you have to give them a reason to be in your store.
I’m being very honest about this because I really do feel a lot of really good people are having real problems holding skate shops now, and we should be talking about this as a community and there needs to be discussions where we can hopefully come to a solution.
A core alliance?
Defo. As a collective we go: ‘fuck you, we’re not stocking your brand anymore.’ It’s difficult because it’s not for me to tell someone else how to run his or her business. Everyone has different problems and what might seem trivial to me might be huge to them and vice versa. We should be discussing it and with brands involved, especially those we should be supporting; core brands like Soletech, Lakai and HUF, we should all be sitting with them and talking about how to better our community of skateboarding. Big brands will survive they don’t need to be a part of this; they’ll survive whatever because they have the deep pockets to fall back on.
And now I’m being a right nobhead and not answering my buzzer for a customer to talk to you. (Laughs)