Skateboarding feminist Matt Collins is more than just financially invested in his southeast Portland skate shop and park – he is devoted. Living up to its name, Matt has crafted Commonwealth Skateboarding to cater to not only the atypical boys and dudes interested in skating, but to girls and women; locals and nonnatives; adults and children by keeping a feminist paradigm when buying shoes for the shop as well as promoting his space to have equal representation – for the people, for the community.
Commonwealth sits just above Ladd’s Addition at Southeast 20th and Hawthorne; which makes the 4,500-square-foot indoor skate park befittingly accessible, as it intersects major transit of all types of wheeled commuters. Facilitating more than 20 pass-holding skaters a day, Commonwealth Skateboarding is not only a rare-of-its-kind indoor skate park but also one of the few skate shops in the area retailing women’s and kid’s skate shoes.
“Commonwealth is a labor of love that is maintained and supported by the skaters and locals who call it home”
How did you first come to Commonwealth?
I was looking to open up a skate/sneaker shop up north towards PCC. I met with the people who built this park, Evergreen Skateparks, to find out how much it would cost to build a new park. Well, they ended up telling the previous owner what I was interested in doing, and because of the financial situation of this place then, Jen (the owner) emailed me kind of out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in this space and putting a shop in here. They did such a good job with the park when they initially built, that I could see what I could do with the emptiness of the shop up front and thought it was way cooler than what I had been looking at in north Portland. So we scraped every nickel we had together…there were a lot of 711 hot dogs for the first year.
It was really putting every single cent I had towards inventory growth. You buy five boards and sell five boards, you can afford eight boards. It’s a very slow build towards what you can spend on windows, or yourself – that money just doesn’t come back right away. This year, finally, with the stickers doing as well as they are, we can finally have a little bit of money for a bit of browth…maybe even take a paycheck.
Who is Commonwealth for?
There are around 20 kids here every day, by themselves, being obnoxious – but it’s great because they keep us in business and it’s a place for them to be and hang out all day. But especially with the store side – we get a lot of different people rolling through for various reasons. Like for skaters, when it rains we are one of the only places to skate. As long as we have an emergency number on file minor’s parents don’t have to be here.
Because we really try to emphasize our sneakers, we get a lot of buyers from Japan who come in because Converse Cons can’t be obtained in Japan. We will get visitors who will buy like, five pairs of a specific Converse shoe at a time. We also get people who just want to check out the art on the walls. I really like that even people who don’t skate at least want to come check it out. We want to cater to all type of people, not just skateboarders. I definitely try to avoid that intimidating vibe where someone might think that they don’t belong here.
What makes southeast Portland a good home for you and you for it?
I’m originally from Boston and have lived here for about four and a half years. When I first lived up north, I hated the fact that my old neighborhood didn’t feel like my neighborhood. It felt like we were kind of in the margins at Albina and Lombard. But when we moved here we got to have the pizza place, the vintage shop on the corner…it just feels more like a neighborhood for us. It feels like an ecosystem that I get to participate in.
How have you made your shop & skate park unique?
I get feedback from parents or newcomers or even people who just want to stick their toe in the water, that say that they’ve been to other shops and have gotten “cool guyed” a little bit – which is common I guess for the industry…but I just don’t get that because it’s kind of mean and exclusive. I do my best to cater to kid’s and women’s footwear, sizes that most shoe stores don’t carry. There are other totally great skate shops in town, but I feel like most only really cater to men’s size 8-11 ½ . We also have this nonprofit, Skate Like A Girl, do clinics here a couple times a month because it’s such an underserved market. I want to give women and kids more options here.
I just want this to be a place that people can come in, chat for a minute and not feel like that necessarily have to buy anything or be the gnarliest skate dude to be here. I don’t think anyone really sets out to exclude people, but you kind of do what you’re comfortable with. It can almost be a default without malice. But for me, I want to be communal.
What ways do you get to utilize your creative background here?
The first two years I was doing creative stuff, but it was like – to build the office patrician, shoes shelves, the racks …stuff like that. It’s creative but it’s not the same thing as design. I’d be tired and covered in sawdust at the end of the day. Whereas now, I can do more design-related stuff I’m interested in. For instance, I did these Bernie Sanders skate stickers – which was one of the first things I’ve ever done that I’ve seen go places on the internet.
I come from a sneaker design background, and if I can I like to focus on that aspect of the shop as much as possible. At this point we have just enough people helping and doing other stuff like buying, at the shop that I can focus a bit more on the things I’m better at – which for me, is shoes. Even just having a few extra hours now to be creative like that makes a huge difference for me. A lot of this job is boring payroll stuff, spreadsheets – it can wind up eating up a lot of your energy if you don’t have some time for creative projects like this to offset that other work. It’s a weird role…a lot of hats.
How do you want the shop/Commonwealth brand to grow?
This place was so much work, but this year has been the first time I’ve been exposed to how much easier it is to be a manager of something like this when you don’t have to be at the front desk all day. Having the flexibility to move around the shop and do other things that don’t restrict me to that front desk, I’ve been able to create and make more – do other things involving the shop. I could see myself doing something involving shoe design. It might even make more sense to do a collaboration involving footwear. It can be hard when you’re small like we are and taking on a project solo like that and say to a factory “hey I want an order of just 80 shoes”, when they are used to big companies wanting much larger quantities. It can be a huge risk, shoe design.
We currently don’t have any sponsors, which is a little weird for a skate shop. However, I’ve been talking with a few different sponsors because there are some things I’d like to do, like pour some concrete blocks – just little improvements that make the skateboarding better. After sponsorship I could see having a small budget to do something bigger. Really create something with our imagination.
What does it mean for you to be a Portland Creative?
Facilitate. Be proactive. People ask me all the time if they can do murals, and I love that there’s next to no editorial process for that here. I like to encourage people to make things. There are a couple of key holders, and they’re always building new skate things with my tools I keep in the back office. I let them come in after hours and as long as they can clean up after themselves and not burn the place down, I like to let them use the space. I get to reiterate – you’ve got to be useful, make something cool – doesn’t matter what it is. So, I try to nudge in the right direction without being that old guy who’s always dishin’ out life lessons.
Creatively, I like to be a place that people can come in smile or even be inspired to do something similar or in their own way. For instance, I think it helps when the kids even see me up front sawing and working on these light fixtures that hang here in the shop. I just went to the hardware store and got the part I needed to put some lights onto a skateboard.
Being here all the time and having people see that you really have an impact on how this place operates and that you’re not just some shadowy business person who collects money at the end of the day is important to me. I think it goes a long way for people to feel like you’re a part of the neighborhood and participating, that you’ve got skin in the game.
Get a pass, shop, and skate Commonwealth here!