Back to the Future: Area 51 and the Making of the Biggest Online Skate Shop in Canada
Updated: Mar 9
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?
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
In some cases, cutsomers would order online but come into the shop to pick it up rather than have it shipped.
The site is "a really great way to stay connected with my customers and let them know what is available in the shop," Gord acknowledges.
As the site grew in popularity, Gord decided to hire a professional to rebuild it, which "took the site to the next level," though he also says "getting in there early was really helpful," as is updating the site every day.
Driven by passion and the urge to do what he loves for a living, Gord - who started skateboarding in the eighties, inspired by movies like Thrashin' and skaters like Christian Hosoi - is also an adaptable businessman.
When selling music in store went to the wayside with the development of the Internet, he found a way to use the Internet to benefit his skate shop.
He notes that while small business is sometimes "scared of the Internet, retail is all about adapting and finding your groove within the changes" in the market.
Gord's passion for skateboarding culture has also helped him through some of the challenges innate to opening a business, like managing administrative tasks and hiring staff.
His love of skateboarding prompted him to "find new ways to tackle the things I thought for sure I would never love."
In the case of hiring staff, for instance, he has found success in the Youth Employment Program.
As a longstanding downtown business owner, Gord has also seen Duncan change a lot. "The totems, tourism and the [Duncan Farmers] market have brought a lot of new flavours out which has been great."
At the same time, Gord's love of downtown Duncan has remained constant.
"The restaurants are great. There’s a good hot yoga studio, we have the market, there are lots of things to do. I can’t wait to check out the new Fort over at the Courts with the board games. And I love Victory Barber & Brand North and their [Drumroaster] coffee."
Last September, Gord partnered with Ian Smith at Victory Barber & Brand North to put on a skateboarding tournament - featuring haircuts by Barber Smith - to raise funds for Nourish Cowichan. The event was a great success, and lots of local talent got to show off their tricks.
Gord is now collaborating with Enjoi to create a unique model of skateboard with Area 51's logo on it.
Ever evolving through working with his community and focusing on doing what he loves in novel ways, Gord has built a shop and an online web page that is truly a site to behold - check them out today or call (250) 746-8869 for more information!