THOMAS TAYLOR INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
Atlanta-based ripper, Thomas Taylor, was an early pioneer of skater-owned skate shops. Stratosphere opened in the ‘80s and survived the peaks and valleys of the skate industry rollercoaster. I think riding with the Rancheros crew helped, along with all of the hardcore skaters who support their hometown skate shop. Thomas’ relentless dedication to the core and many generations of down-home rippers was legendary and he will be missed. R.I.P.
Name, rank and serial number?
Thomas Taylor. Owner of Stratosphere. I’ve been skating since I was a lot younger.
Where were you born and raised?
Atlanta. I’m like one of the only six people from the city, actually.
[laughs] What year were you born?
When was it that you first start getting into skateboarding?
I was seven. I was at a friend’s house and there was a skateboard in the garage. I was like, “Whoa, a skateboard!” It was a wood board with metal wheels, but it was not a homemade board. It was from some wood department. I tried to ride it down the driveway and it was so sketchy. My friend said, “My brother got really hurt on that thing.” A while later, we got Pro Line boards from Eckerd Drugs. They cost $15 and my friend got a red one and I got a blue one. They had Cadillac wheels, so it was real urethane. A few months later, we ran across another dude that was skating in the hood. He had precision bearings and we were like, “This is nuts. Those things are quiet. Where did you get those?” He was like, “I ordered them in the mail.” Then we found out where the skate shop was and we got to go there and pick out our own boards and we bought Logans and Road Riders.
You were riding the streets then?
By the time we got precision bearings, we’d been trying to ride hills in our neighborhoods. We would go down the street and go up someone’s driveway because there were so many hills and that was the kickturn right there. We were learning. A little later, my sister’s friend, said that a pool was drained not far from the house, so we went over there and the gate was unlocked. We just went in and rode and tried to learn how to make a little turn. The pool was really big, an Olympic, and the face wall had a lot of vert, but down below the transitions were pretty good. We learned there and we went back a few times. Later, the skateparks were being built, so it was like, “Have you been to the skatepark yet?” The skateparks were built by private investors and as many as three opened at one time.
Atlanta had three parks in the late 70s?
Yeah. In ‘78, I entered a contest at the bigger one. Also, in ‘78, I entered a contest in Alabama, so parks were being built all over the place.
What was the Alabama park you skated?
That was Gadsden. The other one was Huntsville and that was the Get-A-Way. That was the one that Allen Losi was raging about. We’re talking about one of the baddest parks in the United States of the World.
That was a Wally Holiday park?
Yes. Alabama was hot. We were jumping over there all we could.
How was Get-A-Way?
The Get-A-Way was insane. It had landscaping and astroturf between the areas and it had everything. It had a six-foot keyhole and a 12-foot keyhole. It had the first 3/4 vert on the whole East Coast of its size in this clamshell thing that you just kicked out. It was almost like Kona’s tombstone. Just imagine this giant cradle. It was just as high as that or higher and it went past vert. There were locals, and even that roller-skater, Fred Blood, that were getting up there and touching trucks on the top of it.
Were you tripping seeing that as a kid?
I was blown away. These guys were like gods. There were so many rippers, and it was hard to even skate because you just wanted to see what those guys were going to do. For us to get there, we had to rely on parents and it was a four-hour drive from our home. It was hard for us to get there. Skating kinda died and there was no shop and I couldn’t drive yet. I’d already gone around the block by the time I was 14. I’d already ridden for companies and I was sponsored and it was on.
Who were your sponsors?
It was mostly sponsors from going to local contests at those parks. I’d do well, so they started making me skate in the sponsored or advanced because I was cherry pickin’ the other ones so easy. The local park picked me up and then that park was hurting and then another shop that I liked picked me up. I rode for Sidewalk Surfin, Progressive, Concrete Surf, and National Skateboard Park.
Where was the park in the Atlanta area that was at the caliber of Get-A-Way?
Nothing ever got built at that level here. Those were just dreams that we saw in the magazines or got to go to like the Get-A-Way or Flying Wheels, which was one hour closer. That was three hours away, but the Get-A-Way was better. Those parks reached another level. They were dreamy. The parks around here were pretty rough. They had good ideas, but the people that built them had no clue what they were doing. That was the first wave of concrete and then I just watched everything go away for a while. I was skating those parks that were about to get ‘dozed. I was actually there when the bulldozers were at some of them. Before ‘80, everything was done. I was sitting around with skateboarding shit all around the house and a half pipe in the backyard with no flat bottom. My friends would come over and say, “Whoa, you skateboard?” I never tore down that ramp so, when I started Stratosphere in ‘86, I’d been skating a little bit. I ran across John Hughes, Jimmy O’Brien and Lenny Byrd and I already knew TK from way back and his ramp was the hot spot, so when I was able to drive, I went over there because somebody had told me they were still skating there. Some dude saw my ramp at my house when he was delivering a pizza. He was like, “They’ve got a ramp that’s way bigger than that in Decatur.” I went over to Tommy’s house and they had rebuilt the Ranch. He started the first flat bottom ramp at his mom’s house, but when they moved it out to Debbie’s house in the suburbs, they built a really big ramp and they really put the juice on it. It had a real flat bottom with real transitions and a real roll in, which is maybe the first roll in and first flat bottom that was going on at the time on the whole East Coast.
There was a shot of it in Thrasher, right?
Yeah. After that, they had to move the ramp back to Tommy’s house and that’s where I ended up tracking the ramps down again later. I only knew Tommy. I didn’t know all the new kids that were coming around, like Jimmy and John. I met them at Ramp Ranch III. That was the third location.
Between 1980 and 1986, it was pretty dry for you, like no one to skate with?
I wasn’t even skating. I was really bored at the house. I was doing nothing. I was just a burnout on the couch. I was a total loser not doing shit. I didn’t do anything but go see the Ramones or something. That’s all I would do.
Did you experience what we did? Were you reading Skateboarder and then, all of a sudden, Action Now went down and you were like, “What?”
Totally. On top of not being able to drive, and get anywhere, my friends all quit skating, the magazine turned into another magazine, the skate shop that I was riding for went out of business, and all the parks closed, and we were waiting three months to get a board in the mail from Val Surf. My mom was trying to help me out and keep me interested in it, but there was nobody to ride with. I sat around for two years. I still had the ability to do handplants and airs, but no one to relate to it.
Were you aware when Thrasher came out?
I was totally out of the picture and a friend of mine told me that Thrasher was out, but he had a TransWorld and he said, “Look, I got a magazine.” I was like, “Wow!” He goes, “Look. The graphics are all big on the boards now and everybody is riding really fat boards.” We’d already seen the fat boards come out. When Wes Humpston’s board came out, that was a 12-inch-wide board, I think. That board was crazy. We’d seen giant boards, but now things had shapes in them and cutaways. We saw Gator’s board and we’re like, “This is crazy. These boards actually have cutaway shapes.” People had been thinking about trimming some weight. That was all going down and it just came right at us. I said, “Hey, let’s try to find the pools we were skating a long time ago. Then I cracked open a can of pools that is still legendary. You wouldn’t believe what I found. I decided that I was going to start skating again and find out where everybody was. When I ran across Tommy K, only he knew all the pools that I did because I was from the city. Tommy was from not too far away, so we had a lock on a bunch of shit. We’re talking five pools at one time, even when I had my vert ramp rebuilt. We started the store in ‘86, and I wanted to build a new ramp. I wanted to tear down that thing with no flat. My mom brought it out of the garage and said, “Build whatever you want in the backyard.” I remember Tim Payne coming over and helping me scrap the no flat bottom ramp and then we went straight to the backyard and built a 16-foot-wide elliptical transition 11-foot-tall ramp and it was on again. I was addicted again hard and I had new friends to skate with. I was on a new trip.
What made you think of starting a skate shop since skateboarding was dead?
In a way, it was because I was blowing up in it and I was stoked and addicted. I just wanted to be part of it again. Skateboarding had always been in my life and it was the thing that kind of saved me in a way from just being an idiot, and blowing it at life in general. I was working at a bakery at the time and I started skating again and everybody around me didn’t even know that I knew how to ride. When I met those guys at the Ranch again, I think the first thing that Load or Don Hillsman said was, “I was wondering where you had been or when you might show up again.” The last time they saw me was at the concrete parks. I was that little kid that got dropped off there. No one saw me for all these years. Then I came back and the guys had to explain what was going on. I knew footplants and airs and I could do frontside ollies. I knew lip tricks that weren’t much more than a grind, but I didn’t really know what a 50-50 was. I really didn’t know what a lien air was or a lien to tail and they explained all of it to me. I was learning a trick a day and they were tripping. Some people were bummed. They were like, “Who is this dude?” I’d be like, “I haven’t done a handplant in a long time.” Two days later, I’m doing channel handplants. It was awesome. It was great to have John and Jimmy with me. We hit the road together and Lenny was with us a lot of the time. We ended up down in Florida just tooling around in my Toyota wagon, and we’re like, “What if we start a skate shop that isn’t a surf shop? It’s a real core skate shop.” I got back to Atlanta and told my mom and she loaned me some money that she had saved for college and I went for it. I don’t know what I was thinking. I should have toured Europe for two years and then gone for it. At least I got some of my life in there a little bit, but I was so paranoid about my friends going off to college and doing something and me blowing it and not doing anything with my college fund, but I was so hooked on skating at the time that I didn’t want to go to school. It seems like I had just gotten out of school.
That was a very responsible move. When you got into your first couple of weeks running a shop, what was it like to adapt to that kind of work lifestyle?
It wasn’t anything like I thought it was going to be. Honestly, I was like, “Wow, this is almost scary.” You’re building other people’s boards. Back then you had to put all this time into building a board because of the rails and nose guards and every other thing. You’re like, “This is like building a Lamborghini.” I was stoked because I was hooking them up with a board and they wanted the board built. Now I look back at it and we did more than we should have because the rider could have built it himself, but we were trying to make quality product for the customer. We were trying to do something real.
Was it tough to not give stuff away to the bros?
It was tough, but I was the last one to get sponsored. Jimmy got hooked up and he was riding for two companies at once, I was so pissed because I was doing pretty good in the contests too, but I really didn’t want to make a decision about what I wanted to do. I had already gotten an offer to ride for Madrid and some other companies, but I really wanted to ride for Schmitt. I ended up on Vision. Jimmy was on Vision and Zorlac at the same time. He’s so rad. He knew how to milk the industry. He killed it, so I was the only one taking product from the store. The other guys just wanted little things like hardware and bearings. I’d do wheels, but a lot of them were getting wheels. When I got on Vision, they sent me a board and I went to a contest to Blaize’s ramp, the Rasta ramp. I hadn’t been on the scene for a little bit and I was like, “Here we go.” I called Everett Rosecrans at Vision when I got home and I was like, “Hey, thanks for the board. I won the contest.” He was like, “I gotta call you right back.” He thought I was fucking with him. [Laughs] He did call me back about 10 minutes later and he was like, “Holy shit. How’s that?” I was like, “Thanks for the board. Things worked out. You know, I was really wanting to get on Schmitt in the future.” He was like, “Whoa. It’s going to take a little more than that, buddy.” I ran into Paul Schmitt at St. Pete and I was riding a Vision board, but I was just doing what I wanted to do. It wasn’t like I was leaning on them that hard, but they were hooking me up with a board a month, so I said, “Paul, what’s the deal?” He goes, “You gotta prove something here. I’ve been talking about you and Dorfman is saying that you gotta make the top five or more to get in the door.” On that weekend, I think I got third in that contest, so I pulled the weight. I skated in the street contest and got seventh and he was like, “I didn’t think you could skate street.” I was like, “It’s on, dude. I skate it all.”
That was when Monty Nolder and John Grigley were on the team, right?
Yeah. Monty was the pro to watch then. He was just amazing. Billy Beauregard was on the team and he killed it. Schmitt was partying with us the night before and Beauregard was on the hood of the car and it stopped and flung him off and he broke his wrist. [Laughs] My first introduction to the team.
Was Schmitt still based in Florida then?
I think he had a home in Florida, but he was getting ready to go to Costa Mesa. He bought that Costa Mesa home right after he and Vision started to make a little money together and then the whole thing caboodled out. There were 40 amateurs on Schmitt Stix if you can believe it. They sat us down and said that would go down to five amateurs being taken along and there would only be three of the original team. There would be new guys coming and they would form a new team of pros. They were leaving Bryce Kanights behind and a bunch of other people. That was a hard time because I watched a lot of my friends get pissed because they dragged me over to New Deal.
What year was this?
This was 1990.
That was right when vert skating was dying and street was coming up.
Yeah. I was lucky to have a job. Jimmy was riding for Lake, after everything fell apart with Zorlac, getting paid $12 or $15 a month for board royalties. New Deal was paying us some money as Ams, so we were still stoked and we were getting the best product you could have.
When Paul was doing New Deal, who was that partnership with?
New Deal was Andy Howell, Paul Schmitt and Steve Douglas. Andy didn’t have any money in it, but he came up with the graphics and the idea and he had a team in mind. Steve Douglas had a say about who the team was going to be and he had a Euro connection so distribution was in effect and that’s what they needed. Vision was becoming stale, so they weren’t going to have a new team. With this new frisky team, our vert skaters skated almost like street skaters.
You were still doing Stratosphere too?
Yeah. There were times that I had to close the store and hit the road. If I had put more time into it, I probably would have ended up with a pro board, but it wouldn’t have been with New Deal. It would have been with someone else. The door was open in other areas to have a board with my name on it, but that wasn’t my total goal in life. I was having fun skating and I think other people around me thought that I should have had a board because we were part of a new age of skaters that did kickflip indys and kickflip grabs. When I was part of that, some of my friends didn’t move on with some of the skating that was going on. I ended up with this younger group of kids and we were riding a little different. The only thing that kept me in the loop was the revert grabs and the kickflip grabs and all that.
How did you manage a shop and still get on the road and stoke out your sponsors?
I have no idea. I had some employees, and there were times when one of us would be hurt and they would take on the store and the other ones would hit the road. My friends, like Jimmy, worked at the store before he started the Harley shop. Lenny worked there a little bit and he was always solid. Everybody put their time in on Stratosphere and that helped. When one of us had to stay home and the other guys were on the road, we’d bring it home for the boys.
How did Stratosphere do in the mid ‘90s?
I was skating a lot of different stuff and I had a cool crew. My older friends weren’t skating that hard anymore. I still skated with them, but a lot of them got so mad about the small wheels. I just rolled with the punches. I just listened to what the customer said and I bought it.
Were there a lot of kids in Atlanta still skateboarding?
It was strange because we were selling a lot of stuff, but there were no little kids and no parents. Everything was really risky.
It seems like it was new territory from ‘90 to ‘95. You were riding for New Deal, so did you see what was going down?
Well, the New Deal thing was falling apart for me. I went to Reno and stole their rental car and they didn’t like that, but we still got along. I ended up going into business with Schmitt’s righthand man. For about a year and a half, we ran a skateboard company called Crime. I brought in Adam Luxford and some other kids and I fathered a new team. We had the greatest wood, but eventually Paul called me on the phone and told me that the guy wasn’t going to be mentally able to keep our partnership going and our company was probably not going to exist anymore. I started Torque right after that. By 2000, I was done with owning a board company. I didn’t know how to run it and still run my store, so I had to break it all to my riders. I had some insane riders like Richard Kirby, Graham Bickerstaff, Sean Stockton and Ryan Wilburn. I had too many riders and I couldn’t keep paying them, but they went somewhere in the industry after that. I gave people the heads up to look out for those kids because they were the powerhouse kids. I had to get back to my store, my life and my family.
Did you already have a family going?
Yeah. Grant was born in ‘91 and my girls, McKenzie and Sarah, were born after that. They are only two years apart.
Were you able to support a family off a skate shop?
Yeah. It was hard, but I turned it into more of a skate store because footwear was what I was known for after a while. I was probably one of the biggest retailers of Airwalk, Vision and Vans back then. There were little shoe brands that I used to carry, like Simple and Zero Two, and no one had that crap except me. I was buying a gang load of shoes and people were coming from as far away as South Carolina. Online hadn’t started yet, so I was selling them in the store.
You had exclusives?
Yeah. That made the money.
All of a sudden, there was a concrete skatepark resurgence, and Burnside was coming up and Vans was building skateboard parks. What did you envision going down with your shop then?
I was scared because Vans came on so hard and they flew a bunch of our accounts up to Potomac Mills to see the opening of that and there was so much money invested in it. I just felt like there was almost no hope for a small store like mine. I just thought that this whole mall thing was going to go off and, sure enough, they built one here too. I ended up working for the company who was building it because I was broke.
Did that cut in on Stratosphere sales?
Maybe so, but the park was so far away from me. I was going through a lot of troubles in my life then too, so things couldn’t get much worse. I was facing divorce and my store was doing worse than ever. I was having to work doing construction during the day, seven days a week. It was a pressing time and I’m amazed that I even pulled it off. Then it got better. Everything seemed to turn around the minute I got divorced. I watched everything go to shit for those giant corporations. The whole Vans thing fell apart within no time. You’re talking eleven parks and they were left with two open for a while, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast.
Did you see that coming?
No. I was really down. Around that time, the whole Nike thing started trying to come up. I had gotten through everything in my life and, wham, it turned right back around and I just juiced everything up. I hired a new manager and took on some new lines. Right then the whole shoe thing was kicking. I kicked it even harder because Vans started really kicking ass and DC was starting to fade out a little bit. I knew something was about to happen and then I filled out paperwork for the Nike thing and everything blew up right after that. Adidas blew up after that and I had already been working with Vans, Emerica and eS forever. I love those brands.
What did you think of Nike getting into skateboarding?
I’d already felt their presence for so long that it was weird. I wondered what the real goal was and, of course, it’s cash. It kind of sucked because they are not a bunch of skaters. It wasn’t even formed on the idea of skateboarding. If you look at Emerica and Lakai, a skater thought that stuff up.
In 2007, the Vans parks started to fade, but skateboarding was re-surging and it’s on TV. You’ve got more corporations coming into it. Where were you thinking skateboarding was going, as far as your shop goes? Were you still skating a lot?
I was still skating a lot, but it was kind of a torn thing because I was looking at Stratosphere and dealing with my son coming along and I was looking for the best thing for him. I tried to guide him towards the best deal to take care of him in case something went wrong with me. I knew eventually I wasn’t going to be able to travel with him past the age of 14. I wanted him to make good money, but he had to be his own man. I let him make those decisions. I was like, “This is the deal. You know you gotta play this game to a point.” In some ways, I don’t want any of my friends that started something purely skateboarding to be pushed out of the market. I love Don Brown and Pierre and Rick Howard. Those guys were skaters that started skater-owned-companies. It was about investment and love. When it’s your own family trying to make a dollar, it’s a bit of a torn world. You don’t want these other people involved, but maybe you’re going to have to deal with it.
You gotta pay the bills, so you either go for the money or hang onto some kind of pride that may not pay off.
That’s how I explained it to Grant.
The rad thing is that with guys like Grant and Pedro [Barros], it’s just gnarly, natural skateboarding. They deserve the big money.
They totally do. They deserve the TV money too. I know Pedro plays the game with Red Bull. He and Grant got back off the road together and he told me they went to Pedro’s grandmother’s house just to see the property. These kids don’t really skate for the money. They are addicted skateboarders that have been brought up right by good families. I don’t think Grant ever planned on things being as big as they are. He’s on a retirement plan that puts him retiring at 49 years old. He’s sitting on chrome pretty hard. I introduced him to the Ameritrade people and they took care of him. He bought the house next door to me. It’s trippy.
Grant deserves it. Are you blown away by the level they are skating at?
It’s crazy how much they can just crank into massive transfers or massive airs. You’re going eight feet above the coping with no pads.
I know. I love skateboarding.
It’s the best.
It is. What is your life like these days?
I’m close to the store and I keep skateboarding with the kids and I’ve got my backyard.
What do you have in your backyard now?
I’ve got a pool. It’s like a double down roll in with 7’ 9” transitions with a half a foot of vert and tiles and coping.
Is it a Team Pain build?
Did you get in there and shoot some ‘crete?
I have some concrete skills, but I didn’t run the hose that day. Tony Walsh ran the concrete hose for six days straight. We know how to finish concrete pretty well. My introduction to building with concrete was when I saw them building a quarterpipe in Oregon that was going to be a BBQ grill. I saw how it was done, so I went home and I built one just like that at my house. I was hooked then. I made something skate-able and it had coping on it and I was stoked. Then we tried to do a project at this place called Metropolitan and it got shut down. I kept thinking about it, so we got a BobCat and scrapped my old mini ramp and dug up the backyard and tried to go for it here. I waited around until I got a hold of Tim and we went for it.
Killer. Do you get some good sessions in your backyard?
Yeah. I think these underground projects are pretty cool. We want to build something that everybody can go to.
Cool. What would you tell a kid who wants to get a skate shop going?
Location is everything. On top of that, get ready because the industry may go away. It can help you make money or it’s going to go where it’s not your favorite way and maybe your favorite brands aren’t the ones that are going to make you money. It’s a love/hate relationship. I have to tell you that one of my favorite times was John Boy, Jimmy and I were sitting there and you were skating in practice in Alabama at the Mobile contest. John Boy was like, “Let’s watch Murf kill this shit!” And you did. You did an Indy to tail and then a regular body jar and then lien to tail. I was like, “This guy is just killin’ it!” I think you had just turned pro for Zorlac.
Those were good times. It was great to talk to you.
Hey, thanks, buddy! Good to talk to you.