The Board Room

The B-Side has tried a lot of selling angles, from mail-order to diverse inventory, but it's No. 1 angle is never losing touch with the kids

by Julia Lynam

The B-Side, which has operated in three separate locations in Burlington, opened as an alternative sports shop with a focus on skateboarding. When snowboarding became a rage, the store began catering to that clientele, as well. Christine and Rob Quinn have run the business together for the last five years. Christine was the sole proprietor for three years.

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This was like teenage kids running a business; you couldn't do it now," Christine Quinn reminisces. "Back in those days, it was easier to start a business and skateboarding was hot!"

"Those days" were the late 1980s and the "kids" who started the business were UVM roommates Chris Ryan and Raoul Ollman. Ryan, a world-class Frisbee player, had some winnings to invest and Ollman wanted to leave his job with The Boarding House, then the only skateboard store in Burlington. Together, they set up shop on North Winooski Avenue, and the Burlington store known as the B-Side was created.

On hand from the start was Ryan's then-girlfriend, Christine Pollio, now Christine Quinn. She's been there ever since, owning the store alone from 1994 to 1997 and since then in partnership with her husband, Rob.

It's been a 13-year roller-coaster ride, and the excitement mounts in the B-Side's Cherry Street office as Christine recounts the checkered history of this Burlington business.

"I had some retail experience so I did a lot of the groundwork," she says, recalling those early days when she was a student and the B-side was opened as an alternative sports shop, offering skateboards, Frisbees, juggling equipment, kites and "surf style" clothing.

"We started off well. Raoul and Chris were semi-professional skateboarders sort of heroes and that pulled in the kids. We never had a zero day in the shop on North Winooski."

Back in May 1988, snowboards "weren't even a concept at that stage they cost a lot of money," Christine says. Besides, Andy Coughlin of The Boarding House "had the area sewed up in snowboards." Coughlin, a professional snowboarder at a time when ski areas had only just begun to open up to this outrageous new idea, was the only person locally allowed to carry the Burton brand.

Andy Lugo (right), in front of a rack of skateboards. The store along with its mail-order business sells clothing, accessories, and skateboard and snowboard equipment.

"Winter hit, and we had to have snowboards in the window, so we stocked G&S and Barfott both skateboard-based companies. At that time, Burton and Sims were the Coke and Pepsi of snowboarding. We got Sims in 1989. We operated for two years without Burton and did well," Christine says.

Within a few months, the Ollman/Ryan partnership soured. Ryan bought out Ollman and Christine came in full time as manager. It was intense. "I was working there until 12, 2 in the morning with Chris," she recalls.

"Mail-order started to hurt our business in 1989, so Chris decided to start mail-order, too, and began to sell across the country. All of a sudden we had stacks of gloves and hats and snowboards; you couldn't walk around it. We had to dig out the earth basement for storage."

The B-Side survived and flourished in a highly competitive market by seeing the potential in mail-order, by buying closeouts of clothing that it could sell a little cheaper, and by selling snowboards on consignment. These tactics helped them to carve out a niche, putting themselves and Burlington firmly on the map of skateboard/snowboard culture.

"All of a sudden, snowboards were booming almost underground," Christine says. "You just had to put a little ad in a snowboard magazine to get a lot of orders." They cultivated the Canadian market in the late 80s, when snowboards were hard to get there and people would come down from Quebec to buy five or six at a time. "The Canadians really jump-started our business," she says. "I almost thought of taking a French class, we had so many customers from there."

The B-Side began to stock many of the top snowboard brands, adding Kemper, Gnu and Sims, but it knew that Burton the biggest brand of all was the key to the puzzle.

By the end of 1989, their 600-square-foot retail space on North Winooski not to mention the dug-out basement was bursting at the seams. "Business was unbelievable; there were no overheads, just the two of us. My whole condo was filled with merchandise," Christine says. "A local Realtor whose son was a skateboarder offered us a space on Main Street, but Chris didn't have time to think about moving."

In January 1990, The Boarding House went out of business. "We heard about it, and we went around to the shop on Center Street to check that it was true," Christine says. "Chris got on the phone to Burton the same day." Finally they had the coveted top brand. "It was like someone giving you the golden key. Then, we knew we had to move."

They almost doubled their sales floor by moving to 100 Main St., now Purple Shutter Herbs, with an off-site warehouse on College Street. They expanded their staff: "We took on one full-time employee, George Covalla, who is now a professional snowboard photographer out West," Christine says.

The euphoria didn't last long: "We had Burton for one winter. Then, at the end of January 1991, we heard that they were going to move their factory to Burlington. We were the largest selling Burton dealer per square foot in the U.S. at that time, and they were going to move their factory, complete with factory store, to our town. It was like taking $50,000 away from you."

It was a heavy blow, but the B-Side swung with the punches and even saw the bright side: Having Burton down the street kept other snowboard retailers from setting up shop in the area.

"The Canadians really jump-started our business. I almost thought of taking a French class, we had so many customers from there," says Christine Quinn.

The relationship between the B-Side and Burton Snowboards has continued to be mutually very important, says Clark Gundlach, North American sales manager for Burton. "I've known Christine since we started doing business with them in the early '90s. We have a good relationship and work closely with them. Andy Coughlin was a team rider for Burton, but after he shut up shop, the B-Side became the player. They have a very strong reputation in the industry as a top-level snowboard shop."

When Burton moved to Burlington, the sport was very young, he says. "There was plenty of market for the B-Side. They had a strong mail order following, and they were very knowledgeable and connected to snowboards. If you wanted any information, the B-Side was, and still is, the place to go. Those guys are on it."

The B-Side's move to its current site on Cherry Street came in 1994, just about the time Christine became sole owner of the Burlington store. Ryan kept the rights to the name "B-Side," which he continues to own and has licensed to several other stores throughout the country.

With a huge increase to 5,200 square feet of sales floor and an ailing branch store in Manchester, Christine found that it took a massive effort to keep afloat. When she met Rob Quinn three years later, he helped her breathe new life into the business. The industry was more familiar ground for him. He'd grown up in Stowe, where his father sold and developed Yamaha skis. Father and son also owned a grocery store in Waitsfield, which they've since sold.

Selling skateboards was a new idea for Rob. "Skateboarding has had a bad-boy image," he says, "but the industry has become more established and socially accepted. Once I got involved with the place, got to know the kids, went to shows and saw the time and dedication they put into it, it really changed my whole opinion. It's a viable sport and definitely a viable industry, but the B-Side was floundering," he continues. "Christine was burned out. I looked at the numbers and said, 'This is going to take some work, but it's worth hanging on to.' "

Old stock needed to be liquidated and the Manchester store closed. "There were a lot of inefficiencies," Rob says, "and for the first couple of years, it was obvious what was needed from a business point of view." The couple married in 1997 and had their first child, Lillian, in 1999. With Christine wishing to remain a full-time mother, they looked around for a good general manager who would project the youthful image of the store. They head-hunted Hannah Schwartz, a former part-time employee, a skateboarder and a B-Side supporter.

Not an avid skate, or snowboarder herself, Christine had tried to attract an older clientele by diversifying her stock. "That was a mistake," she admits. "We are a core skateboard shop. I'd lost that, and it really hurt us. Hannah has brought it back to its roots. We are staying with the kids, keeping a shop for the young."

"In skateboarding, something changes every day," Schwartz says. "These kids want to know who's skating for what team, what they're wearing, the bearings, the wheels, the shoes. They keep up with it through videos and magazines. My hardest job is just keeping up with all of them."

She does a lot of informal market research during her free time, much of which she spends helping her boyfriend, David Wood, build skateparks. "I meet a lot of kids and hear what they want," she says. "A lot of communities are putting in skateparks. I hear it's the No. 1 request to parks and recreation departments now."

Can the young afford to keep up with the ever-changing and expensive world of skateboards?

"This industry is very trendy," Rob says. "Things happen very quickly. What's hot this quarter you won't be able to give away next quarter. Kids today get a lot more than we did. It's media-driven and guilt-driven. The key is knowing your customers and what they want."

To make skateboarding more affordable, the B-Side has introduced its own "145" brand with graphics by local artists. "It's a quality skateboard at a lower price," Rob says. Schwartz, too, recognizes that not all youths can afford the most expensive equipment. "I always order lower price point items," she says, "and, the skateboard companies are offering more of that. It's happening more than before."

The B-Side is the premier sponsor of Burlington's waterfront skatepark and sponsors a local skateboarding team, organizing competitions and offering discounts to team members, some of whom help in the shop. "It starts on the street," Rob says. "The younger kids look up to the better skaters in town as role models. Hannah makes sure that anyone representing the shop isn't doing what they shouldn't."

Schwartz pushed for a skateboard ramp in the back of the shop. "This shop is a second home to some of the kids," she says, "I like to help keep them off the street. We have a lot of kids coming in to use the ramp." It's also one of the perks for employees. Andy Lugo, whose worked at The B-Side for the last five years, said he likes to go back there during break or after work, "especially during the winter."

A Colchester native, Schwartz came to the B-Side via the Vermont Teddy Bear Co., where she organized factory tours and trained guides, and the Vermont Department of Tourism, where she worked when the Quinns approached her. "I didn't want to leave the state," she says, "but I was really into the skateboard industry, and I wanted something to call my own."

Burton's Gundlach applauds the Quinns' choice of manager. "Hannah has had a really good impact and done a great job in the surf/skate/snow industry. The B-Side has really turned a corner in the past two years."

Having refound its public, the B-Side is building on its strengths, with the shop a haven of delight for the snow/ski/surf community. Being slightly off the main Church Street Marketplace may cut down on passing trade, but Rob says, "For our clientele, we really are a destination. We have customers from the Northeast Kingdom, Barre, Plattsburgh, Canada. We're one of the few stores nationally that's been known for skateboards and snowboards since 1988. People find us.

"And here kids can skate in and out of the doors, and up and down the sidewalk it may be illegal but they do it," he grins. "They couldn't get away with that on Church Street."

Gone are the days when the owners put in 24-hour days and stored stock in their condos. The B-side employs 20 full- and part-timers. "A lot of students work here to get the staff discount," Schwartz chuckles. "It's a really good place to work."

That's music to Christine Quinn's ears. The B-Side has been a 13-year adventure she wouldn't have missed. "I feel very privileged to have done this," she says.

Originally published in September 2001 Business People-Vermont