In a small Southern town of Tupelo, Mississippi, resides Change Skate Shop. This oasis for Mississippi skateboarders with nearly three decades of skate heritage has endured the changing skate economy, evolving into a community hub for the artists, outcasts, ‘weird kids’ and even punk rock bands from across the U.S. But as Matt Robinson, owner of Change Skate Shop shared with us in his interview, Change in skateboarding is a good thing – even when the older generation fears it. As long as we keep to the ethics that made skateboarding so rad to begin with and have skate shop owners like Matt Robinson, Change is here to stay.
Hey Matt, thank you so much for chatting with us today. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little about yourself?
My name’s Matt Robinson. I’m from Tupelo, Mississippi. If you don’t know Tupelo, it’s in the northeast corner of Mississippi about an hour and a half south of Memphis,Tennessee. It also happens to be where Elvis Presley was born.
How did you fall in love with skateboarding in a small town like Tupelo?
I was born in the late 70s and got into skateboarding in the mid 80s wave. I ran across a Thrasher Magazine at the local Piggly Wiggly, a Southern grocery store. That mag showed me this entire world that was connected to skateboarding, that it wasn’t just this really fun toy I was riding all the time. There was this whole culture connecting every skater and even just being exposed to art and music that I had never heard of, traveling and architecture and seeing the kinds of things that exist out there in cities that people were riding their skateboards in. All that completely blew me away, completely sucked me into skateboarding. I just basically did nothing but skateboard from that point.
Is it true you opened Change Skate Shop right out of High School?
Fast forward 10 years later, I graduated from high school in 94, and by mid 96, I had opened my first skate shop. It was a little small place that was actually a condemned building that we were able to patch up and get back to code while paying almost nothing. We eventually opened up a couple accounts and got a few boards in there. Luckily, there was a pretty strong skate scene already in Tupelo for a small southern town.
Most people would not have expected a strong skate scene in a small Mississippi town, especially in 1996. Can you paint the picture a bit of what a mid 90s skate scene in a small southern town looked like?
You can go even further back before that, there was a skate park here in the 70s, in that boom of concrete, late 70s, skateparks. People tell me all the time that our shop is just about 1000 yards from where the giant concrete skateboard park used to be in the late 70s. Then came 1996, my team opened the shop. There were a good 20 or 30 skaters and we all knew each other. We all have a very familiar vibe to the scene because things were harsh back then.
What do you mean things were harsh back then?
It was probably all over but especially here in the South. It was not uncommon for people to just roll up on us and just jump out of the truck and start swinging on us for being “the weird kids.” Wearing weird clothes and hanging out skating. People always fear what they don’t understand. We kind of caught it from all sides back then so not only was the skate scene really tight, but all the other, you know, quote unquote, weirdos, the people that would wear that tag with pride in the art scene, in the music scene, and in other cultures that were sort of pushed to the edge of society, we all had a lot of support and relationships with each other. That is something that carries through to this day.
It sounds like there’s a lot of strength, there’s a lot of true community bonding, like you said, you’ve made some lifelong friends and all these aspects of your skate scene sound really positive. So then I’m curious, why the name Change?
On the one hand, that’s exactly what’s in view. Anything to do with skateboarding needs to have an air of subversion to it but people fear change at the same time; change is one of the most positive things in the world, right? Depending on your perspective, if you like the way things are, then you would fear change. But if you feel like there’s room for improvement then change can be an incredibly positive thing. The skate scene has completely changed since I got into it 30-plus years ago. It’s no longer on the margins of society. We’re in the Olympics and we have phone calls with multibillion dollar corporations who do amazing things in the skateboarding world. There’s some positive change in the skate world but it’s important for us that things don’t flip on their heads. We feel like we have a responsibility to teach the youth what skateboarding and being a skateboarder is really all about. With that kind of radical empathy that should generate and degenerate in our generation, we want to see that continue to go forward in the youth.
To keep talking about change, a lot of the skate economy has changed. How is the small town skate shop surviving againsts a changing skate economy?
We work with companies that we believe in. We support what they’re doing and they support what we’re doing, which is 100% community focused. We have a skate shop in our mall, which is not really a skate shop. It’s just a clothing store that sells real [sic] skateboards. But instead of being negative toward that, I see that as an on-ramp for kids to get exposed to skateboarding. Then once they get out and they meet other real skaters, they find out like I did with Thrasher in 1986 there’s a whole culture that goes with this thing. There’s an “in culture” clubhouse and the clubhouse has a bowl in it. Which is my shop, a place where you can go and hang out with your friends. Where you get exposed to all of these other things.
What does Change have that these big retailers don’t?
Just the whole community aspect of it is really the only thing that the local skate shop has over the changing skate economy. Like my employee, Ben, he’s in his early 20s and is a really great skateboarder. He just loaded up a bunch of the kids and took them on their first trip out of town to the skate park in Memphis. They all met right here at the shop.
Do you think your community understands the support goes both ways?
I mean, we can never compete with Amazon prices, we can never compete with the big brands, we don’t have the funding, it all comes right out of my pocket. But what we do is try to bring value to our culture, and our community. Really, selling skateboards is almost like a community service. There’s almost no money in it. But if people like what we do and they say, “I’m gonna buy those shoes from Change,” or “I’m gonna make sure my Mom takes me to Change for back to school shopping,” that’s the kind of love that helps us keep the bills paid, so that we can keep investing, keep building spot. Red Bull just blessed us man with some money to build a ledge – the only ledge in our town, that’s actually decent. The kids see that and they know that we’re out here trying to make things better for them. They hopefully put two and two together and respond by supporting what we’re doing by buying the stuff that we sell.
It reads on your website “Oasis for Mississippi Skateboarders,” and the one thing that you keep mentioning is these local art shows, live music shows, these DIYs you’ve built, and these community building events. If you could talk about what these events mean to your community and what’s the driving force behind them?
We actually started having shows in the late 90s. We sort of became established as a venue for touring bands that would come through. We’re still bringing in bands from out of town while working with the local art community. We have art shows up here where we bring in local artists to show their stuff and we’ll get someone to provide drinks and food and have a band play and just try to have a community event so that people come in who may not skateboard. That’s been something that has really grown us as a community hub. What’s so cool and what’s really humbling and amazing, is that our local tourism board, the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau or Tupelo, noticed that people were coming in from all around and seeing shows and taking part in these events. They’d see our parking lot was full on the weekends and actually came in and started investigating like, “Wow, how’d you get some many of these out of town tags in your lot?” We wound up becoming good buddies with them just over the last year or so. So this Labor Day, we’re aiming to start an annual Labor Day weekend of skateboarding, art and music in our downtown.
Please tell us more about your Labor Day Weekend event?
We’re going to be bringing in the first year legends like Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi and Matt Hensley, to come in and showcase their art through punk rock and paint brushes. We’re going to be working with Atiba Jefferson and the Super Skate Posse, alongside other local nonprofits who work with at-risk kids to identify 100 kids in our area who are in that at-risk category but have an interest in skateboarding. At this event, we’re hoping that we can give 100 complete skateboards and 100 pairs of skate shoes and 100 helmets to 100 kids at the skate park as part of this big festival. We’re gonna have pros come in and teach them a skate lesson, guys from the skate shop, to be out there to really connect with the kid and let them know, like, “Yo, come through here anytime,” like “hey, lessons are free, just come hang out, ask questions, and we’ll show you how to do it.” So that’s a huge blessing that has come through our city. It’s really amazing and humbling. They’ve actually made a three year commitment for Labor Day Weekend for the next three years. My hope is if we kick it off this year with such an amazing group of people, it grows over time.
What might you say to somebody who might come into Change skate shop or northern Mississipp who might think it’s not the most welcoming space for skateboarders? Because it seems like from what we’ve talked about, it’s been a very welcoming space for skateboarding.
Mississippi deserves the bad press that it has, historically. That can’t be argued. Not even 40-50 years ago, there were just absolutely unthinkable things and certainly in the sense of racial justice, here in Mississippi. However, from skateboarding, punk rock, and so many of the other things that we’ve been talking about, we see Change. I don’t want to paint my generation that way, everybody’s guilty of trying to paint their generation as the greatest generation, but we weren’t having that as skaters. I really have to credit skateboarding and music, but especially skateboarding and getting my head up and out of my surroundings, and letting me meet people that aren’t like me and figure out that there’s a big world out there. Getting to go travel and the ethics that come along with having bipoc skate heroes.
So the things that my generation believed as skaters, we’re now seeing as the reality in the current generation. I mean, skateboarding was like a white boy thing for the most part. Maybe not in LA, but man, here, now I go to the skate park and I’ll be out there with 20 of the homies and look around and realize I’m the only white dude. I just go right back to skating because it’s the homies. We’re all cementing the principles and ethics that we held in the 80s and 90s.
Tupelo really is a cultural oasis. It’s a place where we all live together. We are all neighbors and we all know each other and there’s an intentionality and community here. It’s so clearly reflected in the skateboard scene and the art and music go right along with it. It’s really a rad area if you visit you’re going to see that whole southern hospitality thing is real. And you’re gonna gain five pounds, laughs, and you’re gonna make a bunch of new best friends.
I still have some more questions about your skate shop but let’s talk a little bit about the Red Bull Terminal Takeover. Can you talk a little bit about that experience? What was it like skating inside of the airport turned into Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, laughs?
It was just absolutely unbelievable. I think that’s probably what everybody says just like how over the top unbelievable it was. Just how again, over the top friendly and accommodating everyone was. They literally just treated us like kings for no reason. We own a skateboard shop and we skate and somehow we’re here, like what? That was like a taste of what it must be like to be an Olympic athlete or something. The kindness and the love with which we were treated at that event, it was just absolutely over the top and all of us were walking around grinning like a possum eating briars, laughs. And that doesn’t even touch on how cool it was to skateboard in the airport and take part in the contest because that was also just otherworldly.
What was it like for your skate shop to be in the Red Bull Terminal Takeover?
It led to even tighter bonds between our shop and the other sister shops that took part in it. And that’s another rad thing about skateboarding that confuses the world is when we all get together for a contest, literally, you’re cheering for everybody you’re competing against, you know, because it’s skateboarding, and it’s rad. And, yeah, it’d be great to win you’re just hyped for the you’re just hyping up the session and you’re hyped to see the homies and who wins, sure they win, but everybody wins.
Can you recall that moment when your team riders walked into this giant playground? What obstacles were you guys feeling?
I was amazed because after our first night, of course, we went out to Bourbon Street and we enjoyed ourselves. But then we had to go and skate vert in the parabola room the next morning at 9am. I was a little concerned about performance, laughs. How that would be for our team because we all know how this stuff is gnarly. I mean, literally a two story escalator that dumps you into a 10 or 12 foot vert quarter pipe. But when the guys went in there and downed some pedialyte, they got after it. Seeing the doubles routine with Skyler and Carter was amazing. Just getting a shot, like having those legends like Jonathan Marion was there shooting photos and you know who’s not gonna put it down when Jonathan meringue is pointing the camera at you? That’s a historic opportunity. So all of the guys really just killed it and stepped up to it. I’m really so proud of them.
The ground must have been incredible: skating in an airport like that?
Totally, I mean absolutely no resistance, and the best pop. If you fell too you would literally just slide forever, laughs.
Red Bull Terminal Takeover – Change
Obviously the name Change is a strong name for a skateshop and I would love to keep talking about Change within skateboarding. Do you believe there are some things within skateboarding that still need Change?
Now as skateboarding is emerging at the top of the heap of what’s cool, it’s up to us to make sure that things don’t flip on their head. We need to continue to encourage a sense of community or share again the hermetic bond – to keep that precious community aspect of it alive. Let’s make sure we don’t lose what makes skateboarding rad.
How do you think we as skateboarders can keep skateboarding from losing what makes it so rad?
The DIY ethic and brands doing amazing things, that mentality that reminds people, “This is what skateboarding is about.” I don’t think older dudes like myself own skateboarding more than the kid who is going to come into the shop today to buy their first complete. But I want to make sure the ethics are maintained, that radical empathy with other marginalized groups and the DIY ethic that we’re going to do these things ourselves. We’re going to be the ones to continue that even with all the change in skateboarding. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. If you want to see change in skateboarding, we’re the ones that are going to have to do it.
Is that what led to your community events? Recently you’ve been hosting an All Girls Skate Night in your skate shop bowl?
We’ve been doing a little skate night here because we noticed there were so many girls skating, but many of which were alone or just skating with their sister or one friend. They didn’t even know there were girls in the next neighborhood who skated. So we picked a night to kick all the boys out the bowl and bring in our home girl Trinity who rips. She is only 21 and she’s taken on the role of “ask me” and “I’ll show you how to drop in, I’ll show you how to grip a board.” She totally took it on herself and now the girls don’t just skate on girl’s skate night, they skate every day and completely rip.
Now might be a great time to talk about your merch and how people can support you through that?
Obviously selling skateboards, as I said earlier, is almost just a community service. There is no mark up in that, so to supplement, most skate shops do their own branded stuff, so we made Change more a brand than just a skate shop. We also do the highest quality, authentic and high-end soft goods you might not find at other skate shops. We worked with local artists and photographers because it’s just as important to me that we portray the vibe we are hoping to put out here with the local community. These are all plans for the long term, to keep Change as a high end soft goods brand based out of the Mid South. I don’t want to let too much out of the bag but we have a lot of rad stuff coming out on the horizon so keep an eye out for that.
As you continue to support your community, how can people support Change and the North Mississippi Skate Community?
That’s a great question, it depends on what perception you come from. If you’re interested in seeing things continue to get better then you should invest in your local community and if you’re interested in seeing that grow, you’ve got to look for the helpers. Look around and see who’s actually doing something to make things better. Look out and see and notice, whatever town you’re in. Don’t support the brands just out there flexing. Look at the brands and people who are taking the money you give them and invest it back into the community. I mean, even if you don’t live around here, if what we do stokes you out and you want to see us go forward, well maybe take a skate trip to north Mississippi or check out our website and order some soft goods or a set of bearings. If you do have a local shop, there’s where you need to go show your support, especially when they do so much for the community.
Awesome Matt, before we wrap this up is there anyone you would like to give a shoutout to?
I appreciate all the local shops, shout out all the local skate shops in the little towns like Tupelo that no one has even heard of who are making life better for the kids and skaters in their community; exposing them to the kinds of culture that has enriched all our lives so much. I love meeting other skate shop owners and supporting their shops, so if that’s you, hit us up or follow Change on Instagram and maybe we can make things better for where you’re at and where we’re at.