Back to the Future: Area 51 and the Making of the Biggest Online Skate Shop in Canada

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Since 1992, Area 51 has been the go-to skate shop in downtown Duncan for brands like Vans and Volcom. How did it also become the largest online skate shop in Canada?

Area 51 owner Gord Chow. Photo by Ian Locke, CNCLV

When Area 51 owner Gord Chow first opened up shop in the early nineties, his business was first and foremost a record store.

That was "before the Internet was a thing," Gord notes, and before the arrival of iTunes and Spotify shook up the music industry.

At the time, Area 51 carried skateboards in the back and records out front, but as streaming music grew in popularity, his business focus "flipped. The music went to the back and the skateboards moved out front."

Brands like Globe are very popular at Area 51. Photo by ian Locke, CNCLV

"You can't download skateboards yet," Gord remarks on the decision to shift the focus of his shop.

That being said, you can get pretty close to downloading a skateboard with Area 51's online skate shop - where in a few simple clicks, you can purchase boards by brands like Enjoi as well as apparel by companies like Brixton.

Carrying skateboards was just the beginning, and now Area 51 is a premier source for shoes (carrying over a thousand models on the walls) as well as skateboarding streetwear for men, women and children.

Footwear is one of Area 51's top sellers. Photo by Ian Locke, CNCLV

Not only is the shop full of options, the site offers free shipping in Canada on orders over $99, and services people from Nunavut down to the United States, and even overseas.

Area 51's success in selling to customers in the U.S is remarkable given that the site "caters to Canadians," where Gord feels the skateboarding market is "really underserved" even as skateboarding has become more mainstream.

At a skateboarding competition hosted by Area 51 and Victory Barber & Brand North. Photo by Ian Locke, CNCLV

Today, Gord observes more and more women are enjoying skateboarding, and dads are getting back into it with their daughters and sons.

"Kids, and not just teenagers, are into it," Gord explains.

As skating culture has exploded onto the mainstream, the sport will now be a category in the Olympics this year for the first time.

Skateboarding just gets more and more popular. Photo by Ian Locke, CNCLV

Area 51's online shop and physical location at 191 Station Street have grown alongside the popularity of skateboarding.

To accommodate the growing success of the site, Area 51's web page is currently being revamped by Friday Photo Design out of Nanaimo.

The site has come a long way from what Gord describes as "a very rudimentary" beginning.

Skateboarder at Area 51 and Victory Barber & Brand tournament. Photo by Ian Locke, CNCLV

"The site was set up in 2002. It was just a hand coded site I did for fun to get an online presence, and I learned a lot just from doing that," Gord explains. "I started putting up products just to see what would happen."

Quickly, Gord noticed that "a lot of kids in town would look at the site and pre-shop" before coming into Area 51's physical location. So too would customers in Victoria and Nanaimo.