STARTING A BOARD BRAND IN THE POOREST STATE IN THE USA
Being in New York City it's easy to forget how small skateboarding is in many regions of the United States. Or how much of a struggle it can be for small brands to make waves in an environment that doesn't foster alternative subcultures or grass roots movements. We recently received an email from one of our readers, Justin Hill, pushing us to do a piece on a little known brand out of West Virginia called Apartment Skateboards. And while looking into the underground brand, it struck me that knowing all too well how tough it is to run and grow a skate brand ourselves here in New York, it must be a much different experience to do so from literally the poorest state in the nation. So we employed Justin himself to catch up with the Apartment guys and get us the full scoop. Thanks to Justin for reaching out to us about this and for conducting the interview....and to Mick Posey for prodividing the photos. So let me hand it over to former West Virginian and current Austin resident, Justin Hill -Josh Stewart
A half demolished, 1970’s skatepark abandoned in the woods probably sounds like something you’d find while hiking through New Jersey with Fred Gall, not something hidden under the bramble and brush in West Virginia, a place that for most, conjures images of country roads, mountain people, coal and brochure-style whitewater streams. But certainly not the state’s skateboard culture or the ingenuity and creativity West Virginians have used for decades to sustain one, which currently has all the trappings for regrowth, thanks to a group of friends, who a year and a half ago walked into a Capital One in their Sunday bests and opened a business account.
Blair Burns hittin the pipe on the WV & Kentucky border / Photo Mick Posey
Follow WV’s skate culture in the 1980's and you'll discover history from Bryan Ridgeway and Chris Carter’s co-staffed zine, Monthly Shredder, to Iguana Skateshop and skaters like John Drake and Don Pendleton, before meandering the Kanawha Valley through the 1990s and rediscovering the creativity below S&E Boardroom. Or track the Tygart creeks in 1995 or 1997, and spot the ingenuity in Shantytown Skateboards and Wheeling Board Co before it angles back, passing through Blair Burns’ 'Skate Everyday' in 2005 and Elk City Skateshop in present-day, where just upriver you’ll unearth one of West Virginia’s newest offerings to skate culture, ripe with ingenuity and creativity, a young brand by the name of Apartment Skateboards.
Blair Burns, Andrew Plata and Troy O'Neal
Lucky enough to catch’em away from their day jobs, I was able to talk with a few of Apartment’s owners and see just what’s in the water over there in the wild, wonderful, innovative state of West Virginia.
Let’s start with who you are, where y’all are from and how you met?
I’m Troy O’Neal from Amarillo, Texas but I moved to West Virginia 9 years ago. I live in Morgantown. I met Andrew at the skatepark up here. Blair I think I met you at Roy’s Bar and Grill.
I’m Blair Burns from Huntington, but I’m living in Charleston, West Virginia now. It was either Roy’s or Capen Synder. A lot of my friends went to WVU, so while I was in college at Marshall I would go and visit them, and me and Troy met then.
My name’s Andrew Plata. I’m from Cross Lanes, West Virginia, but now I live in Pittsburgh. I met Blair during my freshman year at Marshall in 1999. I’ve known Blair since he was like 14 or 15.
Blair Burns ride-on 50-50 / Photo by Mick Posey
Why did you guys start Apartment?
Andrew: When COVID hit, me and Blair had a third buddy who wanted to invest some money and start a skateboard company, and everybody had some extra time cause of the pandemic, so we were down. Pretty early on though, we realized his scope was a little different than ours. He was thinking full scale joint, like 5000 decks. And we were like bro we don’t have that kinda influence, that’s just setting us up for failure. We kept whittling down the size of the order and got to the region we wanted to release it in, which was West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. He asked about the west coast, but we just told’em we don’t know anybody in the west coast, how would we be able to get’em into shops or get anybody to ride’em. It just felt silly to us, so he decided to back out and do his own thing. We felt bad, but me and Blair were like, “Let’s just keep going.” It was the funniest fuckin’ thing, everybody pulling their money together, and then we had to open a business account, so me and Blair had to get dressed up and go to fucking Capital One and start an account for a skateboard company in Charleston, West Virginia, dude it was hilarious.
Blair: I think a big reason we’re doing this is not only to help the skate scene, but help keep the community here too. When I had my skateshop, Huntington had no skatepark. Now Huntington has a park but no shop, and I think that’s how it was in West Virginia for a long time, but now Charleston has Elk City Skateshop and a park too, and I feel Apartment can help those who want to stay here and can represent our friends and all the people we know here that rip.
Andrew: Remember skating Laidley garages back in the day, how if you went there you’d almost always find something going on. I was thinking Apartment could possibly be similar. A place where people could say, “This is West Virginia skateboarding”, then we could have a little more organization, because that’s what was lacking in a lot of places; organization, shops and access. It was never a plan to capitalize off this, so when we did the numbers, the idea was to make it affordable and attainable to everybody.
Taylor Perry slappy crook transfer / Photo by Mick Posey
How does it feel to have notched the one-year mark with Apartment Skateboards? Congrats!!
Andrew: It feels super rewarding in all sincerity. We’ve worked really hard and are stoked to be able to do some stuff and organize in a way that back when we were kids didn’t seem possible. We all share our own roles, reinvest the money back into the company and try to do as much as we can by putting on contests, promotions and trips for our riders.
Does West Virginia’s smaller size make it easier to connect with skaters from all over the state?
Blair: That’s the thing with the West Virginia scene – I was saying how I know Don Pendleton and Bryan Ridgeway, which they’re from like a generation ago, but even though it’s the previous generation, we still all know each other. A bunch of my friends and I built a bowl in Huntington, and most of the people that would go there would be the older crew. It’d be wild all of us hanging out there, like four generations of us all hanging out together.
Andrew: I think Apartment’s capacity to help the skate scene here could be by trying to help cultivate it. Broaden possibilities by setting up some stuff and helping connect everyone to get things done where everybody thrives. I mean we were able to take a whole crew up to NYC for 5 days, skate the spots, it was awesome. We’ve made trips to North Carolina, Troy went to Amarillo with one of our riders for 8 days, and most recent we went to D.C.
Troy: I went on that NYC trip. I’ve skated Pittsburgh, but NYC was insane. In New York you’re literally just skating through the streets and it’ll be like bam famous spot, bam famous spot. A lot of the trips we’ve taken are the first time I’ve been to the place.
Andrew: One of our riders stayed with me the night before we drove up for that one, and he was so stoked. When I asked him where the farthest north he’d ever travelled was? He told me it was my apartment in Morgantown.
Christian Haffer Frontside 5-0 / Photo by Mick Posey
How big of a crew?
Andrew: We had two kids from Huntington, Blair from Charleston, three of us from Morgantown and T. Grogg. Where the fuck is T. Grogg from?
Troy: Lost Creek.
Andrew: Lost Creek?! One of the biggest things I was worried about on that trip was getting the beer. I knew it was gonna cost a shit ton of money to get beer in NYC, so we stopped on the Pennslyvania/Jersey border and just fucking bought like I don’t even know how much, it was a dumb amount of beer, there was so much, people couldn’t buckle up for the last hour and a half to Brooklyn cause they were sitting on top of all the cases. We rolled deep on that trip – it was a fucking blast!
Apartment uses a regional wood distributor as well as local businesses, are you planning on using regional artists for graphics?
Andrew: We’re open to a lot of stuff, but I really like the idea of supporting local artist. We buy all our stickers locally, use West Virginia screen printers and get our wood from up the highway, so we really try to keep our money local, that way even if we go broke we know our money went to the right pockets.
Blair: Our next drop we’re collaborating with an artist out of Huntington, Chris Lusher. He was in the Iguana scene with all those dudes and had a gallery in Huntington for awhile. We’re stoked to be using Lusher!!
Christian Haffer Backside Lipslide / Photo by Blair Burns
How big of a role does West Virginia and the region play in the aesthetic of Apartment? For instance, you had a graphic homage to Leon Sullivan.
Blair: Driving home I always take the Leon Sullivan exit and was real fascinated with the architecture of the walkway that overlooks the exit down into Charleston, and from what I’ve been told it seems nobody knows who built it. I wanted to do something that was geared towards Charleston without having to draw the state outline of West Virginia, you know? Also with the Leon board and its topside quote, it was important to us that we pay respect to Leon Sullivan’s civil rights roots and his importance in the region. We don’t want to have graphics that are like: this is the Morgantown board, this is the Charleston deck, this is the Huntington board. We wanted to do it nonchalantly. We just really want a variety, but it can be hard to do when we’re putting in these orders all at once, because they’ve been going quick, which is a good thing.
Who’s doing B-Slides wax!? Is connecting a larger DIY community within the region a goal of Apartment?
Andrew and Troy: That’s Blair!!
Blair: Yeah, that’s me. I don’t put my name on it or anything, but it feels sick sometimes to see kids with the cassette tape. The cassette with headphones graphic on top of the aerobics board was a little B-Slides reference. My actual job is at Kin Ship Goods here in Charleston, which screen prints shirts, so a lot of
the stuff we’ve done has been through them. It all goes hand and hand with small businesses, other small artists and us all trying to help each other.
Started for the love of skateboarding, what are some of Apartment Skateboards’ goals for 2022?
Andrew: We’ve got a good head on our shoulders, but some goals for right now are maintenance, and because this has been one fucking hell of a learning process, especially during COVID and logistics problems, we’re just trying to lay the ground work to try and establish ourselves where Apartment, the West Virginia skate scene and the community can really try and grow.
Troy: We’re gonna be skating regardless, so we might as well try and do something positive with it while we can.
Blair: Honestly, me and Plata really didn’t think this was gonna be a big deal; I mean it’s still really not a big deal, but it’s more of a big deal then we thought it was gonna be. I definitely didn’t think we’d be over 400 boards sold already. More trips. The trips are for content on one level, but also for the riders so they can get that lifetime type of experience, as well as to reassure to these guys that’s what we’re into it for – it’s more let’s go have fun here and there, if ya get some clips that’s cool, if not, whatever. And just make sure we put our name out there in a way that makes sense, because we’re still small and just trying to feed the flame of what we created.
Andrew: I’m actually moving to New York in June, and I made everybody promise they’ll help me move, so we’re gonna line up another NYC trip for sure, haha! A trip to Copenhagen or Spain would be like a gold star goal. Could happen, willing to try!
Troy: How far a drive is Austin from West Virginia?
Blair Burns Fakie Wallride Indy / Photo by Mick Posey