Roller skates have been hard to come by lately.
Quad Republic, a specialty roller-skate shop in El Cerrito, California, sends out an email whenever new shipments arrive to alert customers who are eagerly awaiting a new pair.
H. Skaggs lined up on the sidewalk outside with their partner to get fitted recently. “Everywhere you go, the one that you want is sold out, they don’t have it in your size. It’s kind of a bummer,” Skaggs said.
Mimi Choi walked out with skates for her kids, age 15 and 9. “Skates are impossible to find right now. There’s a little bit of a fever, I think. We called the big shops. They all say they want them, but they can’t get them in until the end of the summer,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Quad Republic served a niche: derby teams and rhythm skaters. But this past year, the store’s owner, former derby skater and coach Stefanie Mainey, could barely keep skates in stock.
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“During the pandemic, basically, if it was outdoors and had wheels, then people really wanted it,” Mainey said.
Roller skates, inline skates, skateboards, scooters and longboards — they’re made with similar parts in overseas factories, mostly in Asia. Quad Republic is just recovering from backlogs and the usual international supply chain issues.
“Most of our stock was completely gone, and we were desperately trying to order new stuff. But a lot of the manufacturers were closed for a short time. And then when they reopened, it was, it was kind of bananas trying to get hold of skates,” Mainey said.
Across the San Francisco Bay Area, a handful of informal outdoor skating rinks have popped up. Skaters are drawn to smooth asphalt and an enticing sound system.
Skaters took over an empty parking lot beside Lake Merritt. Some set up a DJ booth in the corner of a brand-new park by the Oakland Estuary, others built a rink by an abandoned mall in east Oakland. In fact, they skate on basketball courts in parks all over town, after the parks and rec staff removed the hoops to keep people socially distant. It’s not just California. In New York City and Europe too, everyone is roller-crazy.
These informal, COVID-safe weekly get-togethers cut into the customer base at indoor rinks.
Bob Bruce, manager of Paradise Skate Roller Rink in Antioch, California, said his rink shut down last year and only reopened this spring.
He had a side gig selling rental skates to other rinks. But now he’s found selling directly to the public is different because people committing to owning a pair of skates are looking for something different and fun. He’s had to branch out from the usual black-and-tan skates; anything in color sells.
“It’s back to the ’70s,” he said. “We have a green skate — like an avocado green — and when I showed it to the sales rep, she said, ‘Oh, yuck. That will never sell.’ It became the No. 1 seller.”
In San Francisco, David Miles Jr. converted an abandoned church into a popular rink called the Church of 8 Wheels a few years ago. Now, it’s a family business, but revenue is way down. Miles had just started selling skates under the Church of 8 Wheels brand in early 2020. It turns out, that’s what kept him afloat.
“I just started selling skates in the beginning of the pandemic. If it wasn’t for that, I probably wouldn’t have made it through. You know, it saved my life,” he said. “These skates are selling, selling, selling, and it’s not letting up. There’s not enough ships in China to send in products that are coming over.”
Miles calls himself the Godfather of Skate and said he prefers to sell roller-skating, not just skates. He likes to tell stories about the 1970s, when hundreds of people came out to skate in Golden Gate Park. It was a time when vans rented skates and daredevils “bombed” the hills. He’s a roller-skating evangelist — and an armchair economist.
“Roller-skating always does great when the economy is bad, when everything is really, really bad and there’s horrible things going on. Roller-skating seems to thrive because people are looking for something fun to do,” he said.
His favorite skate park has always been an oval of smooth blacktop under the pines in Golden Gate Park. It’s the original place to skate in San Francisco, where quad wheels never went out of style. And there is no mistaking Miles. He’s the one in furry leg warmers, a cape and a sequined top hat.
“You know what it takes to start a skating area? One guy with a boombox and skates. A couple of people say, ‘Hey, what’s he doing over here? That’s cool. Where can I get some skates?’ Then, you can be here tomorrow. Now you got three people.”
When the fog lifts on summer weekends, you got a couple of hundred. It’s truly all ages, all races, gay and straight, kids, parents and couples — everyone skating to see and be seen, strut their stuff and pick up some new moves. There’s no snobbery, no “I skated here first” feeling. It’s all the fun of a middle school skate night, but with none of the preteen angst.
And despite the backlog and supply chain crisis, the demand for these throwback quad skates seems to keep rolling.