MEMPHIS, Tenn.— “Thank you for calling Cheapskates, this is Tony.” Tony was just a guy manning the phones. He was like a lot of other retail staff, juggling customers on one side of the counter and phone calls on the other, answering questions on which gear to buy and where to use it. There was nothing exceptional about Tony except his last name — Hawk.
“How many people can say they had Tony Hawk answering the phone at their store?” asks Cheapskates owner Ron Hale. To which the obvious answer is, “Not many.”
If you walk into Cheapskates on any given day—provided it’s between their noon and 6:30 p.m., operating hours—Hale will tell you the story of the day Tony Hawk helped him run the store. “People came in the next week asking me who that Tony guy was on phone. Nobody believed me when I told them it was Tony Hawk.”
The year was 1992, and the 10-time X-Games gold medalist really was there; he left a signature on the door frame to prove it.
“He had the Birdhouse team do a demo there on one of our first tours,” Hawk told FTR. “I was grateful because it was hard to get support in those early days. Skateboarding was ‘dying’ and we were a brand new company trying to survive. Also, I took our team to Graceland the next day.”
A global celebrity, a live demo and the ghost of Elvis.
If Hale’s story seems a little too good to be true for a tackle store, it is.
Though Cheapskates would be a great name for a tackle shop, it’s been an independently-owned skateboard seller in an especially rough neighborhood of east Memphis since 1985. It’s the kind of place where the local prostitutes and panhandlers know not to mess with Hale’s customers. But the gritty business might have more in common with your local fishing tackle retailer than you imagine.
Cheapskates is the kind of place that might draw savvy customers from 100 miles away. And it’s the kind of place where every skater within an hour’s drive probably got their first board. Many of Hale’s customers are customers for life. Usually, he’s their most trusted source for information and new products.
This small, local shop is a safe haven for a niche sport. Skating, like fishing, is not a stick-and-ball game. But, like fishing, it has millions of fans and billions of dollars and a healthy dose of disrespect from traditional sports behind it. And, like fishing, the people who are serious about it don’t go in for corporate gimmicks.
Inauthenticity in both sports is easy to spot.
So Hale’s store has endured for 30 years as gimmicky competitors have come and gone. Some came in the form of monolithic big box sports stores (in fact, many of the same stores that haunt your customer base). Others came pre-packaged in glitzy shopping malls. But Cheapskates? It’s still there, in an unassuming strip mall, wedged between a collision repair shop and a Mexican restaurant.
The customers wouldn’t have it any other way. They can feel the authenticity, they can feel Hale’s passion for the sport—one that’s seen him dump thousands of dollars into broken bones; one that, at times, has seen him sell personal possessions to keep the store open; and one that feeds and fuels his customer’s own love of a sport that has always caught the stink eye from the mainstream.
Hale knows his customers don’t need a celebrity endorsement to feel that love, but when you’re running a retail store, it doesn’t hurt to have a good story. After all, you can still buy a Tony Hawk Birdhouse skateboard today.