On a warm Saturday in October, customers ranging from guys in their 20s, to a teenage girl, to a little boy with parents in tow, make their way down the narrow staircase that leads to the hidden hangout that is Uncle Funky’s Boards. Incense warms the air in the psychedelic skate shop and helmets of every color dangle from the ceiling. Boards trimmed with graphics, graffiti, cartoons and logos are stacked on the patterned walls. Some boards are just bare decks, others are outfitted with neon wheels and the full setup. Skull candles and flowers in mason jars sit on the shelves along with picture frames featuring old photos of the owners, a husband and wife duo, Jeff Gaites, 45, and Kristen Howard, 34. You could be standing in someone’s living room. Rewind to about five years ago and if you wanted to buy an Uncle Funky’s board, that’s exactly where you would be – standing in Gaites and Howard’s living room.
On this Saturday, some customers drop by just to chat with Gaites and Howard or to tune up their boards for free using the shop’s equipment. Others browse the decks, lifting them off their spot on the wall and placing them on the floor to test out the feel. Rob Calvert, 28, from Long Island first learned of Uncle Funky’s online when it was being run out of Gaites’ apartment. “He would welcome you into his home, offer you something to drink and sell you a longboard off his wall. Now his shop is like a hangout for local skaters,” he said.
Before opening his business, Gaites held a range of jobs, from construction to fundraising to selling photos for Getty Images. About 11 years ago, Gaites got involved organizing longboard events and soon people were coming to him for recommendations on what kind of boards to buy. Gaites, who has been skating since he was five years old, gave people guidance. In 2005, he contacted several longboard companies and became a representative. “I kept about 20 demo boards above the kitchen cabinets or in the closets and then somebody would call me up and I would let them pick four or five boards, they would try them out, and then when they liked one I would place the order and ship it to their apartment,” said Gaites.
Gaites and Howard started dating in 2008, and soon Howard too started skating. Howard encouraged Gaites to be more business oriented and invest in more products. They moved in together and created a “live/work space apartment” where they sold boards out of their house. Gaites continued to work for Getty Images during the day while Howard worked as a waitress at night and they took turns running the shop while the other was at work.
“It was pretty tough on us, though,” said Howard. “Our lives became very consumed by the business and there was little rest.” When Howard got appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery, she had no choice but to recover at the shop because it was also their living space. They continued to take customers. “I wouldn’t recommend recovering from surgery in a skate shop,” said Howard.
They ran the shop out of their apartment for about six years until the business evolved enough that they could open a bigger store outside of their home, which Gaites refers to as the “separation of church and skate.” They don’t advertise, instead relying on word-of-mouth and referrals. Word spread and business grew. They named the shop “Uncle Funky’s Boards,” after the nickname that Gates’ nieces called him.
Working together as a married couple, Gaites and Howard try to set boundaries. “Generally I have a happier wife if we’re not talking about skateboards 24 hours a day,” said Gaites as he cut the grip tape to size on top of a longboard. Howard agreed, “We have a lot more balance in our lives now that we don’t live in the shop.” They genuinely enjoy sharing their business and they find that their relationship works in their favor. “I think our customers like that we are a family and when they enter our store and our lives, they are a part of that,” said Howard.
Uncle Funky’s sells cruisers, street decks and longboards ranging from about $100-300 in addition to helmets, pads, and apparel. They offer high quality pro-level equipment and parts that are customizable. They also distribute antique boards, skate lessons, and allow customers to do trade-ins with the barter system. 60-70 percent of their customers are international, tourists on vacation who come in after reading reviews on Yelp or Google, then purchase boards and ship them home. “We also have a lot of loyal repeat customers and that’s what’s helped our business,” Gaites said.
Allen Jose, 22, from the Bronx usually gets his boards online through trading using the barter system but occasionally drops by Uncle Funky’s with his friends because “it’s a real homey place.” Jose said, “It’s a good dedicated board shop with a lot of variety. It’s really mellow and laidback and they have everything here.”
Uncle Funky’s philosophy focuses on service over sales and finding someone the right fit. If they don’t have a specific board that someone wants, they will order it or refer clients to other shops that might have it. “I think that because it’s Kristen and me that they’re meeting, they’re getting to meet the owners, and they’re getting a higher level of service,” said Gaites. “At other shops they are getting it from some kid making minimum wage who doesn’t give a shit because the boss is three states away.” As every customer leaves the shop, whether they purchase something or not, Gaites invites them to an upcoming pizza party thrown by Uncle Funky’s to celebrate the Broadway Bomb, an annual longboard event held the third Saturday every October where skaters from all over the country race down Broadway from 116th Street to the Financial District.
While skateboarders can seem intimidating, Uncle Funky’s tries to maintain a very welcoming attitude. “Skateboarding should be fun. You don’t have to be a little radical dude with tattoos and piercings to skate. You can be anybody,” said Gaites. Uncle Funky’s has seen everyone from a 2 ½-year-old girl getting her first board to a 72-year-old man getting his first board and even some unexpected customers. Gaites said, “A lot of bulldogs really love skateboards, and we’ve sold a couple to them too.”
Published in NYU Magazine 11/4/15