The Wheel World: Community and Craftsmanship Collide at Sk8 Fanatics | KCET
The Wheel World: Community and Craftsmanship Collide at Sk8 Fanatics
Printle "Pete" Russell has been rollin' around rinks for nearly 40 years. He caught the skating bug from his mother and aunt when he was only two years old. "I basically came out of the womb on wheels," he says. And he's never hung up his skates.
Russell spent his formative years hitting up roller skating rinks across the Los Angeles area. Later, he got a job as a floor guard at the now-defunct Cerritos venue Skate Depot. Today, at 41, Russell is the owner of Sk8 Fanatics, where he turns everything from dress shoes to sneakers into skates.
"I'm not a dancer, but, when I get on skates, I can do things that most people can't do," Russell says.
For the past half-decade, Sk8 Fanatics has operated amidst a row of warehouses in Paramount. It can get busy here on Saturdays, he says, and he'll often bring in someone from the Sk8 Fanatics family to help him manage the weekend work. During the week, though, he's more likely to work alone.
On a recent Tuesday, an hour prior to the shop's scheduled opening time, all is quiet, save for the occasional, whistling ping of Russell's cell phone. It's a low-key operation that serves up dazzling, four-wheeled footwear. Sk8 Fanatics customs turn up on rinks throughout the country. Sometimes, they might even be spotted outside the United States; Russell has international customers as well. He has taken on jobs for fashion and film shoots. And, while he doesn't like to drop names, he has had some celebrity clients as well, like rapper Tyga and former WNBA player Cynthia Cooper.
He is passionate about roller skating, but turning his love of quad-wheeled skates into a business, though, was a matter of happenstance.
When Russell was working at Skate Depot, he noticed that people were wearing skates without toe stops. He went to a customizer to get a pair for himself, but there was a problem. The largest size plates available to make the skates didn't fit a size 15 shoe. Russell had to get creative.
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He found a set of plates that not only fit his shoe, but were low-riding, which helped provide better balance for the 6-foot-5 skater. The plates, though, were rusted with age, so he took them to a metal shop to have them refurbished. "It looked like an old Chevy that had been restored," Russell recalls. His friends liked the skates so much that they asked him to make some for them. Then their friends wanted in on Russell's customs. Soon enough, the hobby turned into a business. After six years in the custom skate game, he decided to open shop.
Along the shop's wall, Stacy Baldwin spectator shoes shine in the light. Russell's most common request is for dress shoe-styled skates and he frequently turns to brands Stacy Baldwin and Stacy Adams to fill those requests. The Baldwins are particularly useful since Russell is able to get the shoes in sizes small enough to fit some of his female clients. With both brands, the hard leather sole mirrors the type one would find on a good quality skating boot and, he says, that can be a more budget-friendly choice.
The process changes with the customer. "I have to first talk to the customer and find out what their main goal is or what their end goal is with their style of roller skating," says Russell. "Once I figure that out, then we tell them what's going to be the best wheels for them, what's going to be the best plate for them."
Russell likens his clients to custom car and motorcycle aficionados. In fact, he says, some have requested him to match their skates to their Harleys. These shoppers typically aren't looking for ordinary skates and creating a unique pair is all in the details. The skate's hardware can come in chrome or gold-plate or a variety of powder-coated colors. Wheels can be sized to fit the customer's tastes and technical needs. Sk8 Fanatics even has its own line of wheels. Called Fiberglass, the wheels came out of his experience with vintage parts. Russell and his pals had old wheels with dried out rubber inlays that they would scrape out of the crevices. Without the grip, they were able to glide across the floor in a way they hadn't done before. Russell started making his own version of the slippery wheels in 2007.
On a recent Tuesday, Sk8 Fanatics is filled with parts. There are pieces that Russell had sent out to metal specialists and returned for him to re-assemble. There are colored trucks and shiny plates and a box of new wheels. Russell is ready to start cleaning up the store. The previous weekend, he headed out to Sacramento for a skate party and spent the days leading up to the event working early and late hours in preparation for it.
Skate events are a part of the business and Russell travels far and wide to attend them. He'll hit up gatherings in Atlanta and Detroit, getting to know the people in the roller skating community better.
Flyers for skate events also occupy the counter of Russell's shop, including a small stack for the one he has been throwing annually in November. Called Cali-Slide, the event started six years ago as a birthday party for Russell thrown by his wife. "Lots of people came out that we weren't anticipating," he says. "People requested that we do another party." So, they did. Now, Cali-Skate draws people from across California and nearby states for two days of late-night skating.
It's good marketing. After all, his business did start out by word-of mouth. But, it's also good for creativity and community too. Russell talks about the roller skating scene and how popular styles of movement and music associated with it change from city to city. Yet, they're all connected and, when people meet up at the gatherings, they have a chance to introduce each other to new ideas. "We share with them our style of skating. They share their style of skating," he says. "A lot of times, those two styles intertwine and [we] create new styles for ourselves." While Russell is the business owner who makes the skates, he's still a skater.
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