Skates off and on Haight

by Ilan Vardi

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Skates Off Haight, a skate store in San Francisco, California. I am visiting the San Francisco Bay Area with my wife, and I ran into the store by chance while walking on Polk street. Intrigued, I walked in and immediately noticed some Miller Fitness Pro skates on display. Since I live in Paris and Miller doesn't appear to export much of their products, it was the first opportunity for me to see this skate up close. I wanted to try them out, as they might have made a lighter and more responsive alternative to my current Salomon Vitesse 2 skates.

I went over to a person working at the store and asked him if I could try the skates. He looked at me with an air of contempt and said something to the effect of: "Those are speedskates, how long have you been skating?" I responded that I hadn't raced but that I was interested in trying out speedskates. He then asked me what I was using now and when I responded Salomon Vitesse, he said: "Why do you want the Millers? The Salomons are just as fast and cheaper." I wasn't interested in giving my reasons, and given that the Salomon Vitesse has been available for two years, he could have considered the possibility that my skates had worn down... Before I had the chance to respond, he said that he wasn't the guy responsible for speedskates, and that the bottom line was, you had to deal with the other salesman who was on the phone.

At this point, I asked my wife whether I should just go, and she was vigourously encouraging me to leave when the other guy got off the phone and asked me what was up. I asked him whether I could try the Miller skate, but when he found out I had Salomon skates, he said that I just had to try the Salomon TR Racing, since Salomon was working for me. He got out a pair of TR Racing, but I told him that I wasn't interested since every report I had about this skate had been negative, and one store (Hawaii Surf in Paris) even refused to let me try them on since all the customers who had bought them had negative experiences. He responded to that by saying: "We are and I just sold 100 pairs to Japan yesterday, so those are good boots." I insisted that I wasn't interested and he started talking generalities about speedskates: "You buy the boot, frame and wheels separately, that's how it's done for speedskates." He also said that I should really look at their website, and I asked him: "You're not suggesting that I just leave the store and just buy this boot off of your website?" His response: "Well, if you do that, you will only pay $240 instead of $300."

I wasn't quite sure what it was about me that made him believe that I was a completely idiot, but the next thing he said was so weird that I realized that maybe there was something wrong with the guy. He wanted to explain to me the difference between fitness skates and carbon race skates, and he introduced this subject by asking me: "Have you ever boxed in a ring?" This really surprised me and I just said no. He just ignored my response and went on: "Going to carbon skates is just like going from 10 oz gloves to 6 oz gloves in boxing (I don't recall the numbers, they were meaningless to me)." I just couldn't believe why he would use boxing as an analogy for an aerobic sport, and anyway, my physical presence is not too imposing, especially in the upper body (I was wearing a short sleeved T-shirt), see this story for pictures (warning, may not be for the faint-hearted).

Believe it or not, this interaction got even more weird. Apparently, I didn't seem too impressed by the boxing analogy, so he went on: "Have you ever heard of Athens to Atlanta?" I acknowleged that I had. "Well, I finished third ... (long pause) ... in my age category." Right about here is when I had enough and I just walked away and left the store. Actually, he was pretty surprised by this.

Upon leaving the store, my wife asked me why I had never said anything the whole time that I was being treated with total contempt. She said that I should go back, otherwise I would just brood for hours. I agreed, and went back to tell him the following story: On the French speedskating forum of I had read a message from the Rexton distributor for France about the Salomon TR Racing. This guy kept saying that Rexton made really great speedskates, and someone asked him why then were the Salomon TR Racing so bad, given the fact that they were made by Rexton. "A good question," the distributor answered, "and since I also sell Salomon, you can bet that I asked exactly this question to Rexton when I went to see them. The deal is that Salomon sent them extremely detailed instructions as to the construction of the boot and Rexton had absolutely no freedom about the design of the skate. Rexton was so disappointed with the result that they have stopped making the Salomon TR Racing (I think it's been picked up by Mariani skates)." So, I went back to the store, saw the guy and started saying: "I read a message by the Rexton distributor for France on an Internet forum..." The salesman looked at me with a really quizzical look as if to say: "What are you saying, dude?" but then the phone rang, he picked it up and started talking and no longer payed any attention to my person. That's when I decided to leave for good.

Before continuing with this story, I should say that later that day, I went to the skate shop Skate Pro Sports, also in San Francisco, and the service there was as good as I have ever had. The salesman understood exactly what I was interested in, and had me try on a very nice pair of Bont Boxer boots, which fit me rather well.

To return to the Haight story, the next day found us in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, and it was inevitable that we go to the original store Skates on Haight. It turned out that Skates Off Haight was actually the more active store, apparently because of the website sales. I spent about 20 minutes in the Skates on Haight store and I was never greeted by any salesman, I received no acknowledgement of my existence was ever established, there were two salespersons for about four customers.

However, I did manage to glean some very interesting information from the store's Western Wall which was a shrine to the salesman I had encountered at the Polk store. Indeed, one could read newspaper clippings from the mid seventies and view the guy sporting about ten times as much hair. There was also a 1995 certificate from some Bay Area magazine giving the store the award for best place to buy inline skates in San Francisco. However, the most revealing item was a framed certificate from the Athens to Atlanta race stating that Lee Cole had finished third in the 40-49 age category in 1992. So, the guy had stated the truth, however, he had not stated the whole truth: The certificate also included the finishing time 8 hours 1 minute for 85 miles.

Now, I'm not saying that this is a bad time, I'm not sure if I could do any better. Also, it's possible that the 1992 race was held in monsoon-like conditions or gale force headwinds [a subsequent check of the A2A website revealed that there was continuous rain that year]. My point is very simple: Racing at 10.5 mph (17 kph) cannot make you an expert on the relative merits of carbon fibre race skates. OK, you can evaluate whether they are comfortable enough for 8 hours of continuous use, but that's about it, I think. If memory serves me correctly, there is one contributor to this newsgroup who did Athens to Atlanta in under six hours with fitness boots. There was also another person who did Athens to Atlanta in hockey skates, and I would bet that he did a lot better than 8 hours. Hey, marathon runners go 20 kph...

10.5 mph is the fast cruising speed for hockey skates or quad skates, and I don't see any point to carbon boots for this speed. I would assume that high end fitness skates would be the most efficient for that speed.

The point is that Athens to Atlanta seems to be a race designed to let people achieve their personal goals. Bragging about results just seems wrong, especially when you don't have much to brag about. It is even worse when you do this in order to try to browbeat people into buying your close out material. I did learn one thing though: When someone tries to impress you with their race placing, ask them what their time was.

You may wonder what the point of this message is, apart from venting my spleen, and you would be justified. The point is this: Someone who treats customers with total contempt should be prepared to suffer the consequence. I think that this message is also appropriate given the person's internet business: Live by the web, die by the web.


P.S. I am writing these words from the Quetzal Cafe, across the street from Skates Off Haight.

The above was an e-mail sent to Lee Cole on September 24, 2002, from the Internet Cafe opposite his store. He has never responded. I also posted it to the Usenet newsgroup the same day, see the responses.

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