More than a store

Photos: Adrian McLean

From style and service to sense of community, Pro Skateboards and Snowboards has been one of Halifax’s most unique businesses for over 28 years. With quality skateboards, sneakers and clothing, Pro Skates had locations on Barrington Street and Blowers Street until 2010. In a move that saved 30 per cent on property expenses, Pro Skates on Quinpool Road is now a 5,000 square-foot retail space with attractive architecture and modern design.

“Retail has been tough for the last three or four years,” says Pro Skates co-owner, Jon Swinamer. “Around the same time we left downtown, it was the start of the decline of independent retail, and not just skate shops.”

Last summer, Pro Skates traded about 20 per cent of its floor space to establish complementary independent businesses. In July, Anchored Coffee opened a take-away coffee bar. Co-partnered by Zane Kelsall (also of Two If By Sea) and Dean Petty, Anchored holds many of the same values as Pro Skates: top-quality beans, educated staff, ethical business practices and fresh baked goods. It’s a teamwork attempt to up the value of in-person shopping.

“The fun, personal retail experience has been lost,” says Petty, “I think by enhancing the in-person shopping experience, with an emphasis on quality and passion, people will start to come back to it.” Swinamer adds that Pro Skates always intended to have a coffee shop, which suits its casual, drop-in vibe. Anchored Coffee greets customers at the entrance, and a limited but well-crafted seating area encourages walking about with drinks.

As Anchored settled in, Swinamer and long-time Pro Skates pal, barber Joel Martell, were discussing ways for Martell to incorporate a barbershop business in the space. Living in Vancouver, Martell saw many instances of young entrepreneurs benefiting from cooperation. In September, he opened Oddfellows Barbershop in the back section of Pro Skates, next to the mini skate-ramp and inventory storage. By repurposing the space, and by adding a secondary entrance on Kline Street, Martell’s barbering venture has visibly increased traffic in Pro Skates. 

“I had wanted to move home, but I didn’t know how to make it work,” says Martell. “To do this on my own, I would’ve had to open a ridiculously high-risk business right off the bat. I have a business education, I know the risks. This is so low-risk. It’s such a good way for me to get started and build a clientele under a roof where there’s already a community.” With affordable cuts, trim and straight razor shaves, Martell also stocks a retro-inspired line of hair products that match his old-fashioned aesthetic. He also takes female clients with men’s hairstyles, a service most barbershops don’t offer to women.

“This really brings the community back into shopping,” Martell says, “You might come in for a pair of pants, but two hours later, you’ve had a latte, you’ve met five people, you got a haircut. Between the three of us, we’ve turned this store into an experience that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a place people actually visit and that’s very cool.”

Karla Nicholson, manager of the Quinpool Road Business Association, says Pro Skates is an incredible example of a retailer adapting to a difficult retail climate. She says it’s enticing to move to big-box areas with more floor-space and lower rents, but Pro Skates has a vision for the space that makes the independent business especially viable. 

“It’s all about destination shops on Quinpool, like The Trail Shop or Aerobics First,” she says, “The majority of Quinpool businesses are independents and Pro has figured out that you need a great, diverse product to compete.”

A good product is also an exciting product. Swinamer says he thinks sales are increasing since the merger, and he’s seeing a new generation of skateboarders getting interested, as well. Pro Skates has added surf gear and increased its women’s clothing selection, as well. Regardless of retail trends, there will always be a need in Halifax for informed skate, snow and surf salespeople. But adding secondary services makes shopping a personal, community experience.

“It really is important to buy local and hire local,” says Swinamer, “Nothing is easy these days, especially retail. We figure, if nothing’s going to be easy, let’s do what we love, let’s do what we’re good at and let’s make it awesome.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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