James Rewolinski talks Labor Skate Shop & New York City

To the outside eye, the skate scene in New York City appears to be thriving more than ever before. The skateboarders of the city are also fortunate enough to have not one or two, but a great number of incredible skate shops that provide more than just products; giving back to the city and skateboarders as much as they can. While it’s impressive enough for any skate shop to maintain a substantial lifespan, to gain recognition not just outside of it’s city but also country is worth commending. Labor Skate Shop is one of such shops and owner James Rewolinski is nothing but thankful for the support towards the store, whether from skateboarders New York native or beyond. Shortly, you’ll read James say ‘I don’t even know what to say’ when asked about this very subject and while repetitions of ‘it’s just…’ and his general speechlessness were cut out for ease of reading; I’ve honestly never heard someone so thankful for the support given to them and chance to give back to the skateboarders that have helped make the store what it is today. So, without further rambling, get to know the man behind Labor and if you ever shed those little town blues Uncle Frank sang about, be sure to stop by the shop and say ‘hey’ to James, you’ll be made more than welcome.

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It’s just been Labor Day in the States, did do you do anything with the shop to tie into it?

(Laughs) well, I mean it’s a free holiday but we don’t really do much. Just usually end up doing a couple of sales, ordering pizza, giving away some free decks or wheels. But I don’t want to ham it up too much (laughs) because you know… Everyone is like ‘it’s Labor day!’ and obviously you appreciate it but then you almost get sick of it like ‘ok, I got it. It’s Labor Day, yeah…’

I saw a few things on Instagram giving the shop a mention.

Yeah that was pretty rad. I have some friends that have a shop in Albany, New York which is upstate and they did a deal where if you bought a Labor shirt and showed them the order number online, they sent you a Seasons shirt – because the shop is called Seasons. That was pretty rad because any connection you can make like that with a shop I think is always good.

Can you just tell us a little bit about where you grew up and why you ended up moving to New York?

It’s sort of a long one; I’ll try to condense it as much as I can. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – maybe people in the UK won’t exactly know where that is; about ninety miles north of Chicago. I grew up and lived there for quite a while but when I was a teenager I started going to the East Coast for skate trips. Honestly, what really set me off on the East Coast was going to Philly in the mid-nineties. As soon as we went there, we basically got out of the car and it was like ‘I wanna move here.’ For me and a lot of my friends there was a connection between what you’d see on the East Coast videos and for us in the Midwest; we had winter, shitty ground, bad spots. You’d see like Eastern Exposure, Dan Wolfe, Sub Zero and these guys are killing it and doing amazing stuff and it’s not perfect ground, it’s not schoolyards and stuff like that. A lot of friends ended up moving to San Francisco, San Diego and LA at that time but I always wanted to come to the East Coast. In the beginning it was Philly and then I started visiting New York. Then about eight years ago I ended up moving out here pretty short notice, it wasn’t like I had any life experience. Some things shifted around my availability and I ended up in New York.

What was different with the scene compared to back home?

I mean there are a million things (laughs). New York historically, it’s a much bigger scene, there’s a lot going on. But, obviously anywhere you go with skateboarding, no matter how big it is it’s always gonna be pretty tight knit so there’s a lot of different groups doing a lot of different things. When I first started going I guess it was a different time period, around 2002. So post 9/11 New York. Most people that grew up in New York will tell you it’s a totally different place so I guess I don’t have the frame of reference to tell you what it was like before. It was definitely not what you read about in magazines and stuff. I’m trying to think how to put it… I guess I would just say that it’s a lot bigger. There’s a lot more spots, a lot more people, more shops, a lot of different kinds of skaters. Like, you have people who only skate ledges whereas in Milwaukee you had to skate everything because you had a limited window of stuff to skate and a limited time that you could skate too.

Having visited Philly when you were younger, got any good stories about LOVE Park?

Nothing too crazy. We grew up in a city, a lot of people hear Wisconsin they’re like ‘oh you’re in the country.’ No, Milwaukee is a city (laughs). So we knew you go there, keep your head down, don’t flash anything around. Not that we had anything to flash like cameras. One cool thing was the first time we got to LOVE and were skating around, Serge Trudnowski and Quim Cardona rolled up and we’re like ‘this is it!’ (laughs). It was the sickest thing. Our mission back then was to try to find Matt Reason because he was our patron saint, I guess you could say, and unfortunately he passed away last year. But he was our guy; it was just like ‘we gotta find Matt Reason.’ I think we asked around and it turned out he was already in San Francisco at that point, or back and forth or something like that. But yeah nothing too crazy, I have sort of a funny story about going into Sub Zero though if you want to hear that one?

Yeah, sure.

So Sub Zero was like ‘the shop’ and we walked in and instantly it was the best store ever, they had all the brands we wanted to see. Just sixteen/seventeen years old and this is amazing. It turns out that one of the guys working there, and I remember this guy really well but I didn’t remember his name, turns out all these years later that it’s Matt Twills who works at SHUT in New York right now. So this guy, almost twenty years later, works up the street from me at SHUT and I talk to him all the time and we were teenagers talking to this guy in Philly because he worked there every day back then.

I read that on your first set up, you had 40ml wheels; it’s funny how things like that change so drastically over the years. What are some of the things in skateboarding that you really saw change from the time you started skateboarding and opened Labor?

Honestly when it comes to product in a lot of ways we’re kind of luddites you know? Not much changes aside from the size of things. Technology wise, not much has changed, I think wheels have got a bit better quality, they don’t flatspot as easy. But other than sizes nothing much has changed. I was laughing with someone about this the other day. I went to the shop maybe a year after I had that 40ml set up and remember the guy said “I have these 46s which are great because you can be technical but can also go fast” and I was like ‘no those are too big’ (laughs).

Even in the mid-to-late nineties, the stuff I was skating is kind of the same size to now. There’s always that up and down deck size; 8”, 8.25”, 8.5” and then like 7.5”. Everyone keeps saying ‘oh it’s gonna go back to 7.5”!’ and it very well might. I just think now there’s more people skating overall so you have more representation of different kinds of skating. I guess that’s one of the biggest changes, seeing the different styles. Because when I started; bowl and pool skating existed but it was such a small tiny fraction of any sort of scene and the only reason I knew it existed was because I walked into a skate shop and they had this zine called ‘Pool Dust’ and was like ‘whoa this stuff looks gnarly!’ People were skating insanely steep bowls but now you can log onto Thrasher and see the gnarliest bowl skating, the craziest handrails or the techest ledge tricks. It’s all there and definitely, the amount of people that are really good, that’s changed as well. I know people talk about this a lot but it can’t be stated enough because I think that kids, especially when they’re trying to get sponsored and maybe not quite there yet, underestimate how many people are as good as they are, you know? (Laughs).

New York is obviously a pretty focal location for fashion, not just in skateboarding but in the wider world, and that’s forever changing. Since cherry came out [2014], the amount of kids over here that look like the kids in that video seems to have doubled by the day. I was just wondering if closer to home, was there that similar after effect?

Yeah, for sure. But at the same time remember a lot of that was going on here before the video and stemmed from that. Kids are pretty smart and they’re into what they’re into. Not to overstate the kids in New York’s influence, but a lot of kids here were dressing like that when it was being filmed and that was maybe three years ago. Of course you’re going to see those types of kids but what I would say is that in New York on any given day, you see a huge mix of kids and it’s pretty rad because you see a lot of different things. It’s easy for people to shit on it and be like “oh they’re just biting it” and this and that. New York has always been a pretty fashion conscious place for as long as there have been skateboarders here especially and skateboarders gravitate to that. In some cases the skaters shape a lot of what people wear. We definitely did sell a lot of Chuck Taylors after that and actually it was funny because of cherry, and it was around the time Aaron Herrington got on Cons. ‘The Cherrington Effect’ was pretty real.

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You’ve spent a bit of time in England because you’ve got family over here, right?

My brother in law is from Bristol and my sister met him at university, they ended up moving to London and I think lived there for about seven or eight years. I wouldn’t really go there as a kid as much but I’d go when I was at college anytime I had a chance because it was a free place to stay in London. When I was sixteen I made my parents drive me to Radlands which was insane because picture my dad who is a nervous driver and he’s driving on the opposite side of the road, it was a mess man, it was crazy (laughs). When was the last time I was there? 2006 maybe. It’s been a while because in New York the years go by like weeks…

How did you start getting Labor products into other stores then?

It actually started with Japan. Initially, I was thinking about contacting people and pulled myself back because I thought if people want it, they’re gonna come to you. It’s better to do that than to shop it around. The Japanese distributor, Big Wing, contacted us and we started doing a small distribution and not long after Wes (Morgan) was in New York to talk with (Mark) Nardelli and visit people. He came in the shop, we started talking and hit it off and asked me if I’d be interested in doing a small distribution in the UK and it just made sense. I didn’t want to push it. If it seemed like people were interested I definitely would like to get it out there but I wasn’t eager to get it out if it doesn’t sell because that doesn’t help anyone.

I think that other stores wanting to carry Labor product and support the shop says a lot about your reputation. How does it feel to see that? It must be pretty humbling.

Oh thanks (laughs). Yeah, it’s really humbling and it’s surprising everyday really. I don’t really even know what to say… Other than it’s amazing that people are interested in it and want to support it. It makes me want to work harder and do things better here that hopefully reflect that we’re doing what we should be doing in the city; putting out product and supporting skaters here and wherever we can. It gets me psyched to see it all over and there’s a couple of shops in the US that have brought in a little bit of it too and it’s amazing. It’s so rad that you guys wanna support us and be part of it really.

It’s cool to see that support between shops. I know it’s kind of a different case, but Lost Art over here just did collaboration with Nike and it’s rad that a shoe with Lost Art’s name on it has been in shops around the world.

We carried the Lost Art stuff and even before that I had heard about Lost Art. I ordered a few t-shirts, got some stickers and put them in the shop. A lot of skaters come through New York, so kids come through from Liverpool and they’re like “oh shit there’s Lost Art stickers here!” It’s fun to me to make those little connections. You put up a sticker and instantly someone sees it and like “oh this place, they know what’s up.” It helps you connect with other shops and people around the world. I think it’s easier to do that now because of the ways we can move ideas, media and product around easier and cheaper. We can all help each other because we’re unique but we’re also part of something bigger because we’re these stores doing stuff in a unique way. It kind of stands in opposition to the chain thing and that stuff all has a place, mall stores and what not. But to the people that aren’t in that realm it’s nice to have ‘allies’ I guess, all over the world.

Right now, New York and the East Coast is gaining more exposure than it possibly ever has, why do you think that is?

Well I think California’s always going to be that central point of the skate scene and people love to remind me of that too (laughs). For a long time the East Coast has been on the radar but now, I hate to use this cliché, but it’s sort of a perfect storm. A combination of a lot of skaters living here, producing things and some higher profile people have moved permanently too. Alex Olson moved here and he kills it and has two really rad brands and a lot of people he skates with all the time. Johnny Wilson and that whole crew, there’s always that joke ‘the most productive crew in New York.’ But it’s not really a joke. They produce so much, they’re out skating all the time and there are a ton of filmers and skaters that are out there. Aaron Herrington films a lot by himself with his filmer Waylon (Bone) and those guys are out all the time. Colin Read and those guys are out constantly. Richard Quintero is here, he films a lot with Cons. That’s like the tip of the iceberg. Then there’s all the younger kids doing rad things.

I think you just have the combination of a lot more skaters, kids who grew up here and know the city, then you a lot of people who have moved here in addition. People travel around too but the guys who are here most of the year are out skating and filming all the time. Also, connections with some of the people at the media centres, like Thrasher and Transworld. Especially Transworld, Transworld has been super supportive of New York. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but they do a lot of articles, little web clips, host different videos so those guys have really been like ‘let’s amp this up a bit.’ But it really comes down to the skaters, honestly. There has just been a lot of skaters killing it.

You worked in a skate shop as a teenager, during that time did you ever consider having your own shop down the line? Or were you just stoked to be getting paid to grip boards?

It definitely started that way but there was a point where I thought I’d like to do this someday. But it was a case of how would I do it and where would I do it? Since I was going to school at the time, you always have these grandiose ideas about what you’re gonna do after school and the job you’re gonna have. It definitely was in the back of my mind but it wasn’t front and centre you could say.

In the UK, a lot of the shops have very strong self-branding with t-shirts and boards. I think it’s really important and obviously that’s why we’re doing this interview as because of that, Labor is known outside of the States. Why do you think it’s important to produce something physical that represents the shop?

Part of it is because we have a connection and I work with two really rad designers. I wanted to have their amazing abilities to reflect what we do in the store and what the shop is about. At least attempt to do that. I think it’s important to make things as relevant and interesting as possible and sometimes you’re going to make stuff that maybe isn’t the best but if you don’t try you’re never going to go through that process. Working with the guys, it’s been a treat and it’s kind of dumb luck too because two of the guys I work with are from Wisconsin. The one that’s done the most of the work, his name is Joe Misurelli and he came up with the logo. I can’t overstate how important he was to the shop even opening because he was in there with me cleaning stuff and putting up walls. I’ve known him since I was eighteen. He’s been amazing and happens to be very talented in his profession with graphics and everything like that.

You just brought out a bunch of new boards and t-shirts, what usually influences the graphics?

A lot of the time we just go by season and decide what theme we want to work with this time. This particular series, the designer is Nic Jamieson and he’s another friend I’ve known for a long time. We sat down and said we want to do something that reflects the neighbourhood and really all over New York. Or it could be anywhere you look at say a hair salon, nail salon or laundromat and see these kind of stock photos that are haphazardly placed in the window of a woman smiling, holding her nails up or something. We really liked that idea so we were trying to make it work in a skateboard capacity and Nic did a really good job, we went back and forth a couple of times and settled on this one. Nic came up with some good stuff and there’s the tees, decks, then some stickers too. Actually, you’re the first person I’ve kind of mentioned this to but we just finished this clip to go along with it too that went live like ten minutes ago.

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How about actually in store, what brands are doing well right now?

I mean it kind of depends on what categories. The main board brands that do really well would be Quasi/Mother. Definitely Polar. Palace, Call Me 917, Anti-Hero, Krooked, Real, 5Boro, Politic and Welcome; those are pretty much the best board brands. For shoes and apparel, I think the shoes aren’t too unexpected; Vans, Nike, Converse and Adidas. For clothing and apparel that can vary; Bronze does really well, Quartersnacks does well, Polar does well. Bronze does so well because those guys put out such amazing stuff and they’re extremely productive. Peter (Sidlauskas) and Pat (Murray) have made something clothing and video wise that I think a lot of people are really proud of.

A good few of those brands you mentioned are smaller companies and have a link to NYC in some way. (Jason) Dill lives there and does Fucking Awesome. You mentioned Alex earlier with Bianca Chandon and Call Me 917. Brian Anderson also lives in Brooklyn and runs 3D. You said Quasi does pretty good and I know Jake Johnson lives in New York. Do you think these upstart brands have had an effect on the shop?

To some extent yes, but we sell a pretty vast array of stuff so the kid that’s buying a Quartersnacks tee might also buy an Anti-Hero deck. That’s what’s rad to me. It’s not rooted in one thing, there’s a pretty good variation of tastes. It’s been really rad to see them grow and they’ve definitely helped us grow so it’s been kind of a nice relationship for all those things. It is true that some of the smaller brands do better but at the same time we sell a lot of Independent Trucks and Anti-Hero decks. So we definitely have a pretty diverse group of people that come into the store and shop with us for sure.

What sort of reception do UK companies meet in the shop?

We’ve done really good with Isle and Palace has just been phenomenal. I’m trying to think if we’ve carried many other UK brands… we opened when Blueprint was just crumbling, so we never had Blueprint. I’m kind of a kooky skate nerd so when I was late teens/early twenties I found the Waiting For The World video [2000] and had it on VHS because there was a guy distributing that in the US as it was coming out which was pretty crazy. This guy Kevin Marks; he had Killing Machine Hardware, but did Unabomber and Blueprint. Unabomber was one too where I was like ‘this company is the best, this video is amazing!’ That’s a funny one because somewhere I still have one of the gimp deluxe Unabomber boards. I had so many Vaughan Baker and gimp deluxe Unabomber boards (laughs).

With there being quite a lot of skate stores in New York, is it very communal in the way they support each other or is there a clique mentality at all from the skaters buying from them?

I would honestly say, and this may sound naive to someone from New York reading it but, I think it’s pretty communal. Most of them that are still around are pretty unique in what they do. Whether it’s Supreme or KCDC in Brooklyn or Blades or the DQM General Store; all of those places are pretty different and serve a different area. We have tons of kids who come into our shop who will get stuff at KCDC or if they want something from Supreme obviously they’re gonna get it from Supreme, maybe Blades if they want something else. I send people to different stores all the time; I like to think people would send skaters to us for certain things.

We definitely operate on the idea that if you’re keeping it in the city, in the businesses that exist here, that’s pretty good. I always tell kids that are a little younger if I don’t have something that you want, get it somewhere else but get it in a New York based and owned business. Just don’t go to the chain stores, that’s the main thing, because I feel there are enough options that you can get anything and avoid going to those stores.

The shop’s located in the Lower East Side, how does that location differ to other areas of the city?

I would definitely say it’s a bit lower traffic although that’s changing rapidly because the area is changing very, very, very quickly. But it’s a little different, in theory it’s got more of a neighbourhood vibe. But the area is growing; a lot of new bars and restaurants have opened up. Then other areas, Supreme is in Soho – that’s like the epicentre of everything. It’s very busy, there’s a lot of traffic. But what puts us in a unique position is we’re in a good crossroads if you want to go skate a lot of spots. If you want to skate Downtown it’s easy to stop at the shop, you can sit on the benches and meet up with someone. You can grab something because there’s a lot of places to eat and drink around there. So it’s a good crossroads where we’re at, maybe not the highest traffic area for tourists and shopping traffic, but there are a lot of people coming in and out of the neighbourhood to do different things.

Have there been any changes to the city itself that has affected the skate scene?

I definitely say, as a general rule, it’s become a little more difficult to live here in terms of cost of living and finding an apartment. I think in some ways, skaters that move here or have tried to move here don’t really last as long, it’s hard to stay because it’s so expensive. If you want to make it work obviously you will but it’s not as easy as maybe ten/fifteen years ago when it was a lot easier to get an apartment and find work. The shifting economic climate has changed things and also, if you want to get on an even smaller scale, it’s crazy because there are spots that have got even more difficult to skate because the people living above them in the apartments have got even more obnoxious and entitled to the city. “I live here!” type of thing. Part of it, as an adult you understand more but you’re still just like ‘damn you move to New York City and you’re getting mad about a little noise?’ – that’s classic. Even that stuff has dampened it a bit because it’s made it a little more difficult to skate certain spots. But, that just makes people move out and find stuff in outer boroughs and to that extent, the possibilities are pretty much endless.

James Rewolisnki Back Feeble, Photo - Josh Ellis

I know you have a lot of respect for the now gone Autumn Skate Shop. Was there anything that Autumn did you wanted to carry on and keep alive with Labor?

I definitely wanted to try figure out a way to give back in the sense they would; like boxes you could take to Tompkins. Unfortunately, we don’t have Tompkins across the street so it’s nothing I can do in that direct way but I’ve definitely tried to contribute and give back to skaters on sort of a grassroots level. Keep people motivated, keep people skating; I guess it wouldn’t be directly because of Autumn just staying connected to the kids. We do this filming contest called ‘All City Showdown’ and end up giving away a pretty decent amount of cash. I’m not saying cash is everything but it’s sick because it’s just for local skaters. Not gonna invite Eric Koston or someone you know? It’s a smaller scale thing but we end up putting out something that I think is really cool. You can see what people do in one day and it also gets money into the hands of younger, up and coming skaters and just keeps people motivated. That’s the best.

I’ve seen photos of Jake Johnson and Aaron Herrington hanging out at the shop quite a bit, do they ride for Labor?

Jake doesn’t, we’re big fans of him but he doesn’t officially ride for the shop. Aaron doesn’t either. Honestly, our team is pretty loose and if you asked me to say who rode for us I’d probably forget a couple and people would be pissed off (laughs). We have a pretty big team but I like that we have an environment that people feel comfortable coming to. People end up coming through, whether it’s people that are known in skateboarding or people that aren’t known. I always just want skateboarders to feel welcome, come hang out, ask “what’s going on?” and stuff like that. Just keep that environment going because I think it’s key.

Are you working on a shop video or anything like that right now?

I actually want to work on like a seven to nine minute video. Collaborate footage; get the people that ride for the shop plus friends and things like that because there are people who would be down to throw a few clips here and there. I like the idea of making a couple of shorter ones rather than working on a sort of opus.

Finally, if you could have any NYC based pro on the team, who would it be?

(Laughs) like past or present?

Past or present, whenever.

Ryan Hickey, he’s my all time favourite New York skater (laughs).

Thanks James, anything you want to end this on?

I guess I would just say the few people that I want to thank are the people that made the shop happen from the get go and that would be Wendy Shinn, Joe Misurelli, Nic Jamieson, Steve Rodriguez, Mark Nardelli. Those are the dudes that really set it off to get the shop going in the early days and without them I don’t think we would even be around. Thanks a lot, sorry I talked so much (laughs).

Follow Labor on Instagram @laborskateshop, Facebook by clicking here or check out their website at laborskateshop.com.

Images courtesy of Ryan Leathem (1), Labor Skate Shop (2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and Josh Ellis (7).

Interview by Farran Golding.

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