Last weekend, dedicated speed skaters, roller girls and street skaters in Austin got something they had been without in recent memory: their own roller-skate shop.
Before now, anyone into roller skating in Austin had to rely on mail-order catalogs, websites and a very limited selection at a couple of sport shops and a skating rink.
Julie Hunter, a skater with the Texas Roller Derby banked track league, heard the frustration from fellow skaters. She started a mail-order business out of her linen closet, where she kept gear for skaters to try on. The demand was so large that she eventually expanded to her garage.
“Originally, I was just going to do it online,” said Hunter, who skates with the TXRD Hellcats under her skater name, Glitterotica. “I realized the part that I liked was the one-on-one contact with the girls and explaining to them and helping people get the right things. I also love the derby talk and the gossip. I realized there was a whole community. I felt like a derby counselor.”
Last week, she quit her job as a landscape architect with the City of Round Rock’s parks department and opened Medusa Skates in North Austin, which offers protective equipment and skates, as well as clothes, repair services and other athletic equipment.
For most skaters, the slightest change in equipment can make a huge difference in their game. If equipment doesn’t fit right, it can slow a skater down or cause injuries. If wheels are too hard or too soft for the surface the skater is on, performance can be affected.
“If that knee pad doesn’t fit, they could ruin their knee for a couple of years,” Hunter said. “The right skate wheels and correct bearings can make all the difference and make skating easier. If it’s more enjoyable, people are more likely to stick with it.”
Before now, rough-and-tumble derby skaters would power through the pain of an ill-fitting boot ordered online because they were nearly impossible to return. And there is an attitude among derby skaters of “just skate harder.”
“It’s a really simple change,” Hunter said. “I think that is what is cool about having a local shop. I know what surfaces people are skating on and what the conditions are.”
Since roller derby and street skating have expanded so quickly in the last decade, equipment is changing, too. Manufacturers are starting to produce pads and skates made just for derby. Hunter is hoping to capitalize on a fast-growing sport in a town with several leagues.
Hunter isn’t just hoping to move some merchandise. She’s hoping to create a community of skaters, similar to the communities of runners that seem to crop up around their favorite running stores in Austin, and bridge the gap between the various leagues with maintenance classes and watch parties for derby bouts broadcast online from around the world.
“This is where I’d like to see the derby community come together,” she said. “I’d love to be the derby ambassador.”
Sure, Hunter is nervous about opening a brick-and-mortar store in the age of online shopping, but she’s hoping that the community of skaters will keep her afloat. And she’s branching out to appeal to other sports. She’s talking to the inline skaters about their needs. Volleyball players have already been stopping by to check out the knee pads and knee-high socks. Cyclists have been by to check out the helmets.
“When I first started, I never thought I would do brick and mortar. I thought that was stupid. I mean, come on, it’s 2012,” Hunter said. “I realized that my market wants to touch and feel and have store hours.”
Another reason Hunter took the leap is that some of the big brands, like the sought-after Antik skates and Gumball toe stops, won’t sell to a company unless it has a brick-and-mortar outlet.
“We actually have somewhere we can go now,” Hunter said. “I think this is going to improve skating in Austin.”
Esther Robards-Forbes is a reporter for the Westlake Picayune