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Skating on the edge: Competing Portland-area skateboard shops roll into an uncertain future

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Skating on the edge: Competing Portland-area skateboard shops roll into an uncertain future

PORTLAND — When Ride 207, the skate and snowboard shop that Gary Sabol owned with his brother, went out of business in 2010, they had outlasted all the competition in the city.

"We were pretty much the only game in town there for a while,” Sabol said.

The 8-year-old shop's demise left city's skaters with a new concrete skatepark and nowhere to buy a board.

Two years later, Sabol is the sole proprietor, almost by accident, of a new venture: a skate shop named Resession in a Market Street basement. But for now, his is not the only skate supplier around.

In April, Biddeford High School science teacher Tom Long fulfilled a long-time dream to start a skate shop, opening Long's Board Shop on Western Avenue in South Portland.

A Forest Avenue shop called Turn Two, which specializes in roller derby gear, now sells boards, too. So does the diversifying South Portland standup paddle board retailer Soposup. And then there's Zumiez, the nationwide "Walmart of action sports," with a location in the Maine Mall.

With the sudden influx in skate shops, local rippers should be able find the board, wheels, or shoes, they need – but how long any of the shops can withstand the competition is another matter.

Resession and other core skate shops, as they're known in the industry, are specialty shops, devoted specifically to the most dedicated riders and gear companies with the most legitimate street credentials. In any city, they exist on razor-thin hard-good profit margins and their reputations for supporting skaters.

In a small city like Portland, they serve a limited population of hardcore riders and fight long, unpredictable winters. Ride 207 did well until the winter of 2008, when snowboard sales dropped by 25 percent. The trend continued the next year, and the shop suffocated under hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of unmovable snow stock, Sabol said.

And despite the increasing television coverage of skateboarding and other board sports, and the astronomical prize purses for the biggest corporate-sponsored competitions, the number of skateboarders across the country has declined from a peak of around 10 million participants in 2001 to about 6 million in 2011, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

For Long, the chances of survival are based on what he hopes is a solid business model and touch of optimism. He studied the success of Eastern Boarder, a chain of skate and bike shops in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The store he grew up going to, in Nashua, N.H., started out in a small strip-mall space and grew to dominate the second floor of the building.

Long is a Portland resident who looks every bit the school teacher in a long-sleeve shirt. But he gives away his passions in a T-shirt, thanks to tattoos that include a large skateboard bearing. He intentionally opened his shop near the Maine Mall, and chain-priced competitor Zumiez.

He and his wife, Sarah, who gave up a television weather anchor job at Channel 13 to run the shop while Long teaches in the mornings, hope that the location will draw shoppers not just from Portland and South Portland, but from all of southern Maine, and perhaps the whole state, thanks to the location near the shopping mecca.

They've designed the store to appeal to the core skater, stocking a full wall of boards from some of the most reputable companies, while still being comfortable to parents looking for a birthday gift. The shop is spacious and the windows are large; with racks of skate-designer clothes it feels like a mall retailer.

Sabol's Resession is almost the opposite, below street level in the Old Port, the space is narrow and windowless. The vibe is die-hard, the essence of all the stubborn grit of East Coast skateboarding, its long winters and cracked pavement.

After the fall of Ride 207, Sabol said, his personal and professional approach has turned towards minimalism.

“Simplify everything. Just back to the basics," he said. "Make sure you have what people need, what they want," and nothing more.

The difference in business model and shop atmosphere is stark.

"When I look at (Sabol's) model and how it's different from ours, there’s room for both of us,” Long said.

But Sabol, the veteran of the skateboard business's rise and ruin, is less sure.

"It's definitely way over-saturated around here," he said. "Really, there’s only room for one shop that would be able to make money and have a successful business.”

Skaters like Hunter McPeak, a Saco 18-year-old who comes to Portland to skate, say they prefer to shop at local shops like Resession, but end up at Zumiez as often as not, because of the low prices.

With that kind of customer loyalty, local shops  owners like Sabol and Long face an uncertain future – other than that whatever happens to the industry, they'll still be on board.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.