As Published February 20, 2014 for The Hundreds.
Had I not spent the better part of my teenage years serving wood and urethane to the skate-addicted youth of my community, I probably wouldn’t have such an untempered obsession with skate retail. So when I found out my buddy DJ Chavez had opened up a shop of his own in the heart of LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood, it was a story I simply couldn’t resist.
My litmus test for a good shop has always been that initial feeling you get when you first walk in—and the Kingswell test strip instantly tested positive for, well, positive. The shop’s facade and interior is trimmed with birch veneers giving it a very clean, modern feel. Its buildouts are all impressive, custom pieces complete with sliding doors and movable, modular racks that house a very well-curated assortment of young brands—many of which represent an exciting new wave of skateboarding that’s just beginning to crest. And, most importantly, there were skaters there with welcoming smiles. After a notable first visit, my second stop was for an interview with DJ himself. Below is some of what he had to say about his new shop, skateboard retailing, and his plans for what’s to come.
You opened Kingswell after a long run managing Brooklyn Projects. Do you feel like you picked up enough retail skills to do things your own way (or dare I say, “better”) with Kingswell? What did you learn? What will you be doing differently?
Well, yeah, the last shop I was a part of was BP, but it definitely wasn’t my first rodeo. I started at my local shop in Albuquerque when I was a kid and that’s where I’ve got to give a lot of the credit for my retail knowledge. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved in some really amazing stores over the years. Every one of those shops and the people I worked for have played a vital role in me being where I’m at now with my store. I have to thank them all from the bottom of my heart for getting me to where I am now. I think it would be pretty shitty of me to say that I’m going to do anything better than any of those dudes considering they all still have their doors open and continue to do rad shit. Different for sure, but definitely not better.
Retail is always a tough game—especially skate retail. What shops did you take inspiration cues from in the formation of Kingswell? What specifically do you think these stores do right?
Retail is a fucking gamble whether you’re selling skateboards or snow cones. I think for any shop to be successful, you have to be completely involved with and stoked on what you’re selling. Skateboarding is everything to me so I don’t feel like I’m putting on a fake face to peddle bullshit. Besides the shops that I’ve been a part of, I’m inspired by skateboarders running skateboard shops. A humongous inspiration is being a small shop that says “fuck you” to the glorified T-shirt shops that are the mall. Shop small, kids!
The “skate boutique” concept definitely seems to shine through in the Kingswell layout, buildout, and overall aesthetic of the store. Is there something to be said for the customer experience in that regard? Is it worth taking all the extra time and effort making the shop look as clean and deliberate as possible?
Taking the time and thought to really build out a store gives it a life. Anybody can rent a space, go to Ikea, and then stock it with bullshit. What’s rad about that? I want people to come in and see the space living and breathing before they even look at the fucking product! I want people to feel comfortable and welcome in the store. I stay away from calling it a “skate boutique.” It just sounds so fucking pompous and uninviting.
The shop functions also as a gallery and tattoo parlor, right? Skate retail is tough enough, so how do you manage to run three businesses out of one storefront? Do you ever worry about spreading yourself thin in that regard or are the three areas of the shop managed independently?
When we were going into it, our main focus was to make a creative space based around skateboarding and all of the shit that we’re into off the board. I consider skateboarding an art form and most skateboarders are genuinely creative people. There’s a filmer and photographer on every session capturing that art. Why not have a place to showcase all of this creativity? It’s a shitload more work and I have no real down time, but that keeps the shop from being typical and becoming stagnant. As for the tattoo aspect of the store, it’s just something we had never seen done in any other shop and also something we are personally into doing and totally stoked on. It’s a pretty heavy part of skate culture so it tied in perfect. We have two amazing artists that have ran tattoo shops around the country for years so they manage that whole side of the business which gives me the freedom to focus one hundred percent on retail and events.
“Location, location, location” is always a common mantra for retail. Why Los Feliz? Was there something particularly attractive about that neighborhood?
Location was like the easiest fucking part of this whole thing! Why? Because there’s nobody fucking over here! We looked at the map of established shops in LA and found a big fucking hole from Hollywood to downtown as far as skate shops are concerned. Los Feliz happened to be right in the center of the hole. We found a space and that space happened to be where Walt Disney drew his first comic. How do you pass up that history? It was a no brainer!
Let’s talk product for a moment. Image skate shops like yours play a pretty crucial role as showrooms for young brands. Can you speak a little bit about your buying strategy in terms of what’s stocked on your shelves. In a lot of ways it seems like you’re going after a very specific niche of brands to represent your store. Is that fair to say?
I wouldn’t say it’s an “image” shop considering I’m not buying for one specific demographic. It’s not just this or just that. It’s like skateboarding—there’s not just one type of person that skates. It’s for everybody. My focus for product was to first and foremost be stoked on it! That’s my only specific niche. I’m not stocking shit just because it’s what’s cool and selling for everybody else. I’m not a businessman trying to turn a buck. I genuinely care about the brands we work with and the product we carry. We have big brands, smaller brands, and handmade goods from friends. We take risks with product and brands that may or may not sell, but that we think are fucking cool. It may not be the smartest thing for “business,” but if we don’t try and help to get this stuff out there, who will?
What about hardgoods specifically. You seem to have an interest in many of the new and exciting small board brands coming out. Can you speak to that? Why stock those over the more established ones?
Let’s be honest here—bigger distributions can afford to give better deals on product which in turn gives the shop better margins on the sell of the product. I’m not saying we don’t carry those more established brands, because we do. I also know that the smaller brands sometimes get overlooked because they can’t afford to give deals. Like I said before, it’s about taking the chance and supporting what we think is awesome.
Women’s and accessories also seem to have a pretty prominent representation in Kingswell. Does it take a diverse product mix these days to satisfy customers? Who is the Kingswell customer in your view and how do you curate your store to cater to them?
Most shops in our demographic cater more towards the dudes and I’m sure that we will always have more men’s stuff than women’s, but you have to at least try and have stuff for the ladies. It’s also that most of the ladies stuff is made by our dirtbag friends’ wives and girlfriends so we gotta have their backs too. I honestly couldn’t tell you–our customer base being so new and I really don’t think about it. It’s for everybody and I hope we have things that everyone can appreciate.
With you and your partner Patrick Melcher being former pro skaters yourselves–it seems to have made your opening pretty impactful. That certainly helps things move along a little quicker, right? How has that helped what you’ve got going on?
For fucking sure! I’d be lying through my teeth if I said it hasn’t been one of the main reasons that we are where we are today. Skateboarding is the only reason I am where I am today and in life in general. I know that’s fucking crazy cliche, but it’s true. It’s an amazing thing to have that kind of support. I’m overwhelmed with how people have backed us going into this and all I can say is, “thank you for believing in us!”
What’s your definition of success as a skate shop? Many retailers might say keeping the lights on and having enough dough left over to live a decent life, but is there more to it than that? Is there more to a successful community skate shop than just dollars and cents?
It’s about doing what I, in my heart of hearts, care about. It’s about the love and never breaking your standards for a buck. That’s what I consider being successful. With that being said, I consider what we’ve done a success.
-By Cullen Poythress