Sky High & Plight of the Skater-Owned Skate Shop
I first met Aaron Polansky at Estabrook. Polansky, owner of Sky High skate shop in Milwaukee, was there on an early December afternoon with a small crew of locals in the midst of some serious manual labor. Housed inside the chain link fences of an abandoned tennis court, Estabrook is a DIY skate park tucked into the corner of a larger county park just outside of Milwaukee. Surrounded by trees and conveniently situated next to a German beer garden, before the snow flies each year, it’s a beautiful place to skate. Polansky, his mint green pick up truck parked on the grass right outside the fence, has been contributing to the project for over 10 years.
A few days later, I went over to Sky High to interview Polansky and learn more about what it’s like to be a local skate shop owner in the face of the rapid changes the skate industry has experienced in recent years.
Aesthetically, the design and layout of Sky High is in clear alignment with Polansky’s overall understated style and minimalist philosophy. Simple tile floors, big windows, skater-owned product inventory, etc. It’s more an FA kind of a shop than a Dunks on Dunks kind of a shop if you know what I mean. Polansky himself was donned in well-worn construction boots, blue jeans and a Spitfire hoodie.
We sat down and got to talking about how Polansky got into skating in the first place. Growing up in a small town outside of Racine, WI; he recalls the exact moment that first sparked his interest in street skateboarding back in 1987. An 8th grader at the time, Polansky recalls seeing dudes like Tommy Guerrero and Lance Mountain skate in the Police Academy 4 movie and being blown away by it. “I literally remember the hair on the back of my neck standing up, I got that kind of feeling from it.” He recalled.
One of the aspects of skateboarding that most captivated Polansky’s attention in the late 80’s was the diversity of people involved in it. Commenting on another skate video from the era, he notes, “there were so many different types of kids…dirty burnout kids…leather jacket, punk kids…kids wearing neon green shorts with pink hats…it was all kinds of kids.” From clothing style to race to age, it was through skateboard culture that Polansky was first exposed to a diverse community of people who were all participating in an exciting new creative pursuit, together.
Hooked, Polansky soon managed to get his hands on a Veriflex board, and has been skating ever since.
Sky High opened as a skate shop in Racine in 1988. According to Polansky, “From the beginning, it was a meet up spot” for skaters. In the shop’s early days, he remembers regularly being part of a pack of 20+ kids that would wait outside everyday before its doors were even open. They would congregate at the shop, and then go street skating from there.
By 1993, Sky High’s original owner opened a second shop in the Milwaukee area, and Polansky became one of the location’s first employees. In 1999, Polansky bought the shop outright from the original owners and has been running it ever since.
Internationally, the economic viability of the skateboard industry in general has undergone massive ups and downs in the nearly 20 years that Polansky has been running Sky High. One of the most important things for skaters to realize about people like Polansky is that being a local skate shop owner has at no point for him been either easy or financially lucrative.
In spite of currently being the only skate shop in the city of Milwaukee and in spite of the years of blood, sweat and tears that Polansky has put into sponsoring local skaters, hosting neighborhood skate jams and supporting local DIY projects like Estabrook, the future remains uncertain for Sky High.
While there are several factors that contribute to the plight of the skater-owned skate shop, Polansky identifies the rise of tangentially-skate related “action sports” shops in malls as one of the primary culprits.
When asked how he chooses which brands to carry in the shop, Polansky says, “If it’s in Zumiez, then I really don’t care, because if it’s a 13-15 year old buying your stuff, they’re just as likely to go to there as they are to here.” So instead of going for the blockbuster brands featured in display windows at malls, he instead sets Sky High apart by focusing on smaller, skater-owned brands like FA.
“I can’t compete with Zumiez on pricing, and I can’t compete with the fact that it’s convenient for grandma…It’s really hard to run a shop now.”
Taking into account the amount of energy that shops like Sky High put into building and sustaining local skate scenes, it seems that skateboarding as a culture has a vested interest in the success of people like Polansky. But only time will tell if real skaters choose to support their local scenes with their dollars.
The last question I asked Polansky was related to the future of skateboarding. Recognizing that it would be easy for him to default into the role of the grumpy-old-skater-man who lambasts every new change, he simply says, “I am so glad I grew up and got to see skateboarding in the 80s and 90s.” The fact that, “I got to see tricks happen when they were invented…I got to be a part of that and I’m so grateful.”
Reflecting on the simple magic of skateboarding, he concludes “I think it’s an amazing thing, because it was made by kids…when you have no knowledge of it, you just create with it…that’s what I think is precious about skateboarding.”