Weary but Unwavering: A Community Skate Shop Holds OnCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | The owners of Uncle Funkys Boards fight to protect their business — and their community. Published: August 10, 2021
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As of today, I’ve written 62 small business profiles in the pandemic. Every interview has been inspiring, most have been heartwarming, and some have been heartbreaking. The first time I audibly choked up on the phone was for #6: Uncle Funkys Boards. It was when Kristen Howard, the co-owner of the beloved West Village skate shop, told me she had to forego another cycle of egg freezing to pay rent. I’ve thought a lot about Kristen and her husband and co-owner, Jeff Gaites, since I first spoke with her last April. When people ask me what this newsletter is about, or why I do it, their story always comes to mind first. Recently, I caught up with Kristen, and I’m happy to report that the shop has made it through — though it hasn’t been easy. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The last time we spoke, the shop was closed, sales had ground to a halt, and you were struggling to get on unemployment. How did you get through the summer?
We managed to qualify for unemployment, which is basically what saved us. We were able to pay our bills by the skin of our teeth. We opened back up [for] curbside [pickup] in June. People were looking for skateboards and had exhausted their options online, so once we did open back up, it was with a lot of business. It was just for a few weeks that we did curbside, which was a struggle because we don't have a website that has all of our products listed. We have a really wide selection, but it's shallow: we don't have a lot of each thing, but we have a lot of different things. Offering all of those things online is not a part of our business model, so we ended up taking pictures for people and emailing them and trying to put things on Instagram to show what we had. The process for selling just one skateboard was multi-step and multi-email. When we were able to reopen with limited capacity and masks, we could breathe a sigh of relief financially, because it was clear that we were going to be pretty busy if we could stay open.
When did you let people back inside the shop?
July 2020 or the end of June 2020? We only did the curbside for a few weeks.
How did it feel to be back?
It felt like the wild west. We felt like we were not supported by the local government, the federal government, the police, anybody ... in terms of [enforcing] mask requirements and limited capacity.
Were customers reluctant to follow safety regulations?
I have so much to say about this, because it was so upsetting. Jeff's sister has advanced cancer, and I'm immunocompromised because I have an autoimmune disease and I am a cancer survivor. So we had those very serious things on our minds as we were opening up and asking people to wear masks and providing masks if they didn't have them. During the summer, we had a line going outside and we could always tell right away if people were going to be mask-compliant or not. People have been largely understanding, especially people who stayed here in New York during the worst of it and watched our neighbors die — those people really understand. I think other people who were coming in from out of town or hadn't spent the pandemic here didn't have the same level of empathy. We had a couple come in who didn't want to put their masks on and were arguing the whole time about it. Jeff always takes the approach of going straight with the vulnerable truth so that people can understand where we are coming from. He tells people, My sister’s ill and Kristen is immunocompromised, we're taking this very seriously, there's no negotiation here. This couple was trying to push our buttons, saying Oh, you guys are really scared of the coronavirus … It's not a real thing … Eventually, one of them swore at Jeff. I said, That's it, you need to leave now. This was after us asking them to put their masks on multiple times, and them continuing to argue. On his way out the door, the man coughed on my face.
I was devastated. I was so mad, and then I ended up balling. We're out there enforcing these policies without any support, in order to keep ourselves and our employees and customers safe, and some people are so determined to violate them, for reasons I will never understand. From there on, it felt like we were at the frontlines of this ideology battle. And at the same time, the police were marauding outside our shop because the Black Lives Matter protesters had gotten closer to our area in the neighborhood, and not a single one of these police officers was wearing a mask. I confronted a large group of unmasked police officers on video, and they literally turned their backs on me. The same day, the manager of the hair salon above our shop also confronted a group of police officers and said, How on earth am I supposed to get my customers to wear masks, if you're out here standing right outside of my shop and not wearing a mask? They were like, We have a letter from Cuomo that says that we only have to wear masks if we're dealing with the public. We were like, Aren't you dealing with the public right now? You're speaking to us. They were completely dismissive of us. I think you can tell by the way I'm talking that Jeff and I are both so weary after this year. That kind of combative relationship with people is not something that we're used to in the business that we're in.
Have you been able to break through to any of the customers who were hostile to safety regulations?
Sometimes, and sometimes people just don't want to hear it. The person who coughed on me said something like, Yeah, we heard you the first three times when Jeff was explaining our situation. On the rare occasion it has broken through, but the people who are determined not to comply are ready with 10 arguments about why, and they are really committed to sticking with that for some reason.
Were you able to get any relief loans or grants?
The good news is we got a second round PPP loan. We didn't apply in the first round ... I was really unsure about it, and then all the money was gone anyway. I did apply in the second round and we were approved and I was able to hire two new part-time employees [in addition to Pete, a long term part-time employee]. So we have three part-time employees now, and that has been huge. It was a big lift in terms of morale, because we are so, like I said, weary from the last year. Bringing in fresh energy and enthusiasm and patience and all the rest has been a big relief to both Jeff and me. And they're great; that has been a really positive thing that has come out of this year.
How has your local community responded to this collective trauma?
There has been a lot of solidarity among business owners trying to help each other out — and commiserating over the new challenges. I feel like there's a communal sense that we don't have a lot of support from the local government.
What support do you wish that you had?
When the police situation happened, I thought, What would this look like in a perfect world? And it would be police officers outside with masks on handing out masks to people who don't have them. Not arresting people. As far as the rest of the local government ... Help with enforcement of policies [is needed]. It never felt like there was a lot of thought given to what happens if people don't comply. They’re leaving it up to the honor system, and I'm sorry, but that's not going to work.
How is business right now?
We continue to be pretty busy. In isolation and out of isolation, people are figuring out ways to be out in the open air and avoid public transportation. Where people already loved skateboards before, I think the pandemic has made skateboarding even more appealing. From teens to adults, anybody who always wanted to pick it up and hadn't had the chance to, [finally did when] they were working from home or were furloughed or whatever. Also, this is the first year that skateboarding is in the Olympics, and we actually have a sponsored rider, Bombette [Martin], a young woman skating for Great Britain. It'll be interesting to see what the effect is on the industry.
Kristen and Gus, her and Jeff’s dog / Photography by Jeff
What does the shop feel like today, and how is it different from the way it felt before COVID?
It feels a little more precious. In order to do this thing, we have to take safety precautions, but we're happy to jump through these hoops to make it happen because of the love that we have for it. Otherwise, in a lot of ways it feels the same. We have families coming through and people buying their first skateboards and we still do the pictures [posted on Instagram]. We love taking those pictures: it reminds us of the “getting your braces off at the dentist” picture, because they're so happy. We're fortunate enough to introduce a lot of people to skateboarding; now we're just doing it with masks on, and sometimes you have to wait in a little bit of a line. The spirit of things feels very much the same. I think the challenges reinforce for us what it means to be open and to be able to do what we do.
What has surviving this pandemic taught you about yourself, both personally and as a business owner?
This year has helped me learn to listen to myself. In the quiet of isolation, all of your feedback is internal, and I realized that that is so essential. I ought to be listening to myself all the time. It was also the sudden change … You're going along in a certain way, and you think it must be that way, but then it’s not possible. It's like, What now? It induces panic, but it’s also really liberating: there are actually an infinite number of ways that things can be, and we can create our own rules and live by our own ideologies. We used to be open seven days a week and it was only since the pandemic that we decided to be open five. Everyone needs time to rest, and it was something we thought was a luxury we couldn't afford ourselves before. Now we're realizing that we can't afford not to do that.
I was also able to use the time to work on some of my passions outside of the business. I'm an actress and have always been pursuing that, but when Jeff and I started the business, I focused so much attention on it that I wasn't doing a lot of acting. And then this year, I ended up doing three acting projects, and it was because I was more successful about dividing my attention between the business and those passions. And then Jeff and I have had conversations about visiting his family to be able to spend time with his sister. Before, we just wouldn't close. And now, we're discussing it. If need be, we'll close the shop because family's more important. People will understand or they won't, and that's okay. As long as we can make our rent and we put up a sign and apologize for the inconvenience, so be it. We're not so great at that yet, but we're talking about it [laughs].
How to support Kristen and Jeff:
- Visit the shop in the basement of 128 Charles St, New York, NY (open Wed - Thurs, 12 - 7 pm; Fri - Sat, 12 - 8 pm; Sun 12 - 7 pm)
- Buy a gift card
- Follow on IG and FB
Until next time,