By Michael J. Solender
The Charlotte Observer
If you walk into Black Sheep, the Charlotte, North Carolina, independent retailer of skateboards, accessories and hard-to-find sneakers, it’s hard to tell the sales staff from the customers. The shop has more the appearance of a clubby meeting place and hangout for the skateboard crowd than any notion of a traditional retailer.
For Black Sheep founder, Josh Frazier, 41, the feel and mood of the shop is precisely what he set out to create. Frazier, a passionate skateboarder since he was 12, opened Black Sheep more than 10 years ago with the goal of creating a comfortable and inviting space for Charlotte’s developing, but dispersed, skate-culture scene.
He’s found success with an unconventional business model that’s looked to word of mouth and social media buzz to create a destination for skate culture. It’s been a proven approach in reaching a coveted young demographic with disposable income.
“Back in 2003, I had a conversation with a buddy of mine,” Frazier said. “Charlotte didn’t have an authentic shop, owned by a skateboarder, who understood the culture. We decided to be that place. It never crossed my mind I’d be able to make a living doing this.”
Frazier has an undergraduate degree from Clemson in international business and an MBA from Wake Forest. He worked in marketing at John Deere for four years, leaving with hopes of riding the late ’90s Internet boom to lend support to a biotech startup. Ultimately, Frazier lost his job in a layoff and financed the opening of Black Sheep with his unemployment checks and little else.
“The shop was tiny,” said Frazier, referring to Black Sheep’s initial location, not far from the current space. “I never sought outside financing or looked to spend a lot of money on up-fitting. I always thought growth would come organically, through word of mouth and a more direct appeal with stickers, social media and events.”
Though he had no retail experience, Frazier possessed an intimate knowledge of the skateboard culture, fashion and music. Even the Black Sheep name pays homage to celebrating the creative individuality of skateboarding and the desire to stand out and be different.
Frazier promoted the shop by creating custom-designed apparel, passing out free stickers and holding informal art shows and after-hours music events at his shop. The shop became known as a place to meet friends, talk skateboarding and check out the latest gear. His Facebook and social media presence grew.
Expansion to a nearby space two years later, where his footprint more than doubled, was all self-financed.
His revenue stream is 50 percent footwear, 25 percent apparel and 25 percent skateboards and accessories. A large portion of his apparel is in-house designed gear for which he contracts with local printers to produce.
Creating a third space
Tobe Holmes is director of Historic South End for Center City Partners, a Charlotte neighborhood- and community-development group. “With Black Sheep,” Holmes said, “Josh has effectively created a popular third space, a destination, beyond home or work, where people want to be. He’s done a phenomenal job of creating community and a place for the skate culture by providing more than just his shop but also activities to get involved and participate in.”
Frazier annually takes the lead in organizing Go Skateboarding Day, an event established by the International Association of Skateboarding Companies to promote skateboarding.
He’s worked hard over the years to combat negative stereotypes some hold about skateboarders and has provided outlets away from private property where enthusiasts can safely and legally enjoy their pursuits. This year’s local Go Skateboarding Day celebration was held in June at the parking lot of the All American Pub.
For the event, Black Sheep coordinated efforts to construct ramps and jumps to replicate favorite skating spots in Charlotte that are otherwise off limits and held a competition. Skaters got their boards tuned and received repairs across the street at the shop.
Holmes noted that Center City Partners provided Black Sheep a micro-grant to support this community-building event.
“These small grants, typically less than $500, support bringing people into the area that might not otherwise come, and are likely to return,” Holmes said. “South End definitely benefits from this type of activity.”
Bryant Park skate plaza
As one of the most visible faces for the region’s burgeoning skate community, Frazier has actively lobbied Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation for safe and legal skateboarding venues.
The department is exploring a test pilot for a skate plaza in Charlotte’s Bryant Park. A May 2013 master planning document prepared by the department shows a proposal that includes a skate plaza, and Frazier continues to lobby and build support through social media.
Jim Garges, director of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, has experienced Frazier’s passion and commitment to the project firsthand.
“Josh is absolutely a terrific champion for the project,” Garges said. “He’s very committed to making it happen and I’ve enjoyed getting to know him and learn more about the skate community. Skateboarding is a great form of recreation and this project has a great deal of potential.”
As for future growth, Frazier is looking primarily online to expand Black Sheep’s reach. For now he’s enjoying a well-earned, strong following of loyal customers and the respect of his community neighbors.
He even squeezes in time for a ride up a half-pipe or two.