San Francisco’s Best Skate Shop FTC Turns 27
FTC Skate Shop has defied the odds—lasting nearly three decades, when most shops can't make it past three years.
Photo by Tobin Yelland
Whenever I'm asked for advice on opening or running a successful skate shop, I always tell people, "Don't do it if you want to get rich. Make sure you love skateboarding as much as your first-born, because owning a skate shop is more community service than anything else."
I know this from experience, because this year my partner and I celebrated ten years in business with New Jersey's premiere skate shop, NJ Skateshop. To an outsider, ten years might not seem like much of an accomplishment but when you factor in the 20 or so shops that have came and went during that time because of how many of our peers are too stoned or stupid to balance their books or pay their bills—and when you factor in meager profit margins—ten years should be counted in dog years. Here's a disgusting and little known fact about skateboard retail:
Average retail cost of a skateboard deck is $50 and the average wholesale cost of a skateboard is $35. After you factor in shipping and griptape at $3 a piece, the net profit on one deck is $9. Now, split that $9 with a partner and reinvest $3 back into the business and you barely have enough to buy a beer. But, on the other hand, selling a kid his first board is pretty priceless...
Photo by Dennis McGrath.
Today, even with online skate retailers and skate kiosks at the mall, it's still very possible to stretch those $9 and make something meaningful. The key is localism. Ten years ago when we were first starting out, I looked to shops that were cultivating rad skate scenes in their area as an example of what I wanted our establishment to be. Shops like Pit Crew in DC, Supreme in NYC, Stratosphere in Atlanta, Nocturnal in Philly, Cowtown in Arizona, and FTC in San Francisco. All the aforementioned shops had the sickest skate teams, and when you visited these places, the shops acted as a central meeting place for skaters. Out of all these, FTC had put in the most time and arguably had the biggest impact of any skate shop.
Originally started as Free Trade Center, FTC began as a ski and tennis shop in 1966, but it wasn't until 1986 when the owner's son, Kent Uyehara, began placing orders for skateboards using his dad's retail license that history was made. And for 27 years, Kent has kept the SF skate scene thriving and has sponsored some of the big names who came out of the Bay Area, like Chico Brenes, Jovontae Turner, Jim Thiebaud, and Mike Carroll.
In 1993, at the height of the SF and Embarcadero movement, FTC released its seminal skate video Finally... which would take FTC's notoriety out of the hills of San Francisco and thrust it to international fame. And three years later, they would release their second video, Penal Code 100A, another certified classic skateboard film. Since then FTC has grown to five locations and has recently released a 200-plus page hardcover book by Seb Carayol that documents the store's contributions to skateboarding over the past couple decades.
I decided to hit up one of my all-time favorite FTC team riders, James Kelch. James has always been very blunt and unapologetic about his opinions, a sentiment that is sadly lacking in modern skateboarding. He was also known as the enforcer during that EMB era, so naturally I tried to get him to tell me some fight stories.
Photo by Patrick O'Dell.
VICE: What is FTC, and what does it mean to you?
James Kelch: FTC is the best skate shop ever. Owned by one of my best friends, Kent. The letters to me sat and stand for "FOR THE CITY." FTC to me is a place where you could always find a friend.
Tell me about the fight that landed you on the team.
I left a house party from downtown SF. On the bus were some Japanese dudes talking really loudly. Eventually, I told them to shut that shit up. They didn't like that much and jumped me—kicking, spinning, all that shit. They beat me silly in the back of the bus. I eventually hulked up on 'em and finished them off. They got my board in the ruckus. Next day I went to FTC to buy a board all beat up, with black eyes and a bloody nose, and Kent asked what happened, and I told him my skateboard was stolen. Kent gave me a free setup, a Jeremy Klein. I've never left his side since.
Back then you were a bit of a brawler. What's your best fight story?
I was walking by a bar on lower Haight with some heads from DC. Them heads were talking shit to some bikers who came out of the bar. Both of them got beat down real quick. Screaming my name for help. With board in hand, I ended up leaving about eight of those biker fools laying on the sidewalk bleeding from the skull. Next morning a paddy wagon pulled me over on my skateboard and asked my why my clothes were so bloody. I told them I smacked my head skating down a hill. They let me go.
What's the best crazy story from EMB?
The crazy stories about EMB to me were the ones about people getting boards stolen and shit. Barely ever happened but a few times. Shit just got exaggerated.
You went through a period of drug use and abuse. I assume you found yourself in some sticky situations as a result.
I was too g for that. I was never in any sticky situations. But the funniest situation would have been owing the dope men money, seeing them on the block asking for said money, and punking their asses out of my face.
Photo by Lance Dawes.
You relocated to Cincinnati. I lived in Cincy for almost a year, and it's like a racial powder keg. I remember the Klu Klux Klan having marches in broad daylight near the hood. Does the KKK still have those rallies downtown? What's the deal with that, and how do you not get killed with the projects being right there?
No KKK rallies, man. I never even seen one. That's some crazy shit. But yeah. The rednecks and the homies don't like each other out here. Crazy racist. But when I hear the racist pigs talking shit I clown 'em real quick. They usually stop for the time being. Horrible.
What's a tougher city, Cincy or SF?
It's hard to tell what city is tougher. Different situations. Cincy is desperately poor. That fact alone might make it a crazier place.
I always liked how unapologetically opinionated you were. It's a lost sentiment in skateboarding due to all the money involved and people afraid to lose their paycheck. But living in Cincy and being removed from the direct skate industry, I'm curious about what is your take on the current state of skateboarding?
The mainstream aspect of skating is real wack right now. Most kids I meet don't care about the enjoyment of skateboarding. They only care about who will sponsor them. Who will pay them. And how famous they might get. It's stupid. I can't stand it. I'm constantly being bombarded with kids asking me to send in their clips to companies that are owned by people I know; it's horrible. I always lie and never send it. It's funny how they have made fun of how 90s skaters dressed. Have they seen anything after that? Dressing like a young lady and talking like a gangster? How the fuck does that go together? But my main pet peeve is Mountain Dew. What the fuck? A horrible drink that rots teeth and makes kids fat sponsors athletic events? Fuck off.
You recently started Hela Cool Skateboards. What's the vision for the brand?
HELLA COOL SKATEBOARD CLUB is a little company I started on my front porch. It's a cartoon me and my girl Lee Ann were working on. It's about a princess who skates and has pets who skate. And a plant also. Each character is a version of a modern skater. Hella cat is the maniac rager skater. The princess is the skater who thinks they deserve everything. The bunny is the skater who can ollie but has no tricks. The squirrel is the skater who spins in circles running his mouth and won't shut up. The potted plant named Potty is the stoned skater who you drop off at the park, and when you come to pick him up, he is sitting in the same place. He has no feet. They all live in a haunted house. I started it in May 2013. The vision is to just maintain and sustain a positive attitude in such a weird high-profile business-owned skateboard world. No pros at the moment. Maybe never. I have no plan. I let the universe decide what happens. I just go with the flow. Since I ain't trying to get rich—I'm a vagrant—I won't waste the money living like a movie star. It's all for the club! And you're all invited to join #HELLACOOLSKATEBOARDCLUB. And one more thing—the club isn't about me or my past. It's about enjoying skateboarding for what it's worth. And the only thing it's really worth is your own peace of mind.