Skate Escape employees Baby B, owner Wade Thompson, Olivia and Carson
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
In the 1980s, Wade Thompson got his dream part-time job: working at Midtown’s Skate Escape in the summers. He sold bikes, skates, and skateboards to people of all ages and skill levels alongside a diverse group of poets, artists and musicians - including Jonathan H. Smith, who would later become internationally known as the rapper “Lil Jon.” He says he found a real community whose unofficial headquarters at the corner of Piedmont and 12th Street also served as a front door to Piedmont Park.
“Bob [Orlowski] and Janice [Phillips] who founded Skate Escape were like Uncle Bob and Aunt Janice,” Thompson said. “They were super kind and treated everyone like family.”
A photo of a rollerblader outside Skate Escape in the 1980s.
About 30 years later, Thompson is getting his dream job back – full time. Thompson and his business partner purchased the shop from his former employers at the end of last year and they have big plans to fix it up for the next generation of skaters.
Read about Skate Escape’s next chapters below.
A Welcoming Beacon
When Orlowski and Phillips put Skate Escape on the market, it seemed unlikely they’d be able to find a buyer willing to keep the shop open. The building and the parcel it sits on, combined with the adjoining property, occupies prime property. The land could have been redeveloped for an office or residential tower, but that’s not what Thompson has in mind.
“This is an institution,” Thompson said. “We want to keep this corner and do everything we can to make it the happiest little corner in Midtown.”
To purchase the properties, Thompson called up his old skateboard buddies and asked them to chip in. That initial round of fundraising fell short, so he then called on another friend and coworker, Michael Chanin, to help him complete the deal.
Together the two plan to repair the aging main building, formerly a filling station, and beautify the surrounding landscape. They started by repainting the exterior, laying down slate pavers and building planters. Drawing on their expertise working for a renewable energy company, Cherry Street Energy, they plan to cover portions of the building with solar panels and the rest in plants.
Eventually Thompson plans to build a mini-park along Piedmont Avenue. Part of the inspiration for this parklet came from Thompson’s past work for Midtown Alliance. Son&Sons, the marketing firm he founded and for which he serves as president and creative director of, led Midtown Alliance’s 2014 rebrand. This included the design of our colorful Midtown logo inspired by our district’s location “in the heart of it all.”
“The permission to do this came from getting to work with Midtown Alliance for so long, to understand what happy streets and sidewalks look like,” Thompson said.
Son&Sons designed new logos for Skate Escape and Common Bicycles, which is what the bike shop that operates at the location will now be called. Thompson’s six-year-old daughter helped design the rainbow smile on Skate Escape’s sign.
“I told her it was perfect,” Thompson said. “We’re part of this community, and we want to be a welcoming beacon.”
Plans for the building next door, 1094 Piedmont, are more open-ended. The building once housed the skate shop in addition to an ice cream and snack bar. But in 2015, the building was badly damaged in an electrical fire and has yet to be repaired.
“We’re looking at how to best remediate that, and restore the building in a way that meets the needs of the neighborhood,” Thompson said.
People have suggested a restaurant, a bar or tavern, a coffee shop or another ice cream shop. Chanin and Thompson would like to open a retail center for Cherry Street Partners, which helps municipalities, universities and enterprises develop sustainable energy plans. It would make things slightly easier for Thompson, who is juggling multiple roles with his leadership role at at Son&Sons, the skate shop and Cherry Street, where he is chief of brand and communications.
“I’d love to have our headquarters right across from the park, but we also realize there might be higher use values for the neighborhood,” he said.
"The Antithesis of Expertise"
Roller skating has seen a resurgence during the pandemic, with some people dusting off old skates in the back of their closet and others picking up the hobby for the first time.
“It’s so great to see old customers I used to serve 20 years ago bring in their kids, and see new customers,” Thompson said. “We have new generations of employees that are involved in roller skating. For so many people, it has become a reprieve from COVID life, and I love being part of that.”
Two of Skate Escape’s longest tenured employees, Ronnie and “Baby B,” have worked there for more than 30 years and can build custom skates out of boots, Vans or other pairs of shoes customers bring in. They also sell a variety of ready-to-wear dance skates, speed skates and, of course, skateboards for newbies and maestros alike.
“In terms of what we demand from ourselves, we want to be experts, but we welcome every kind of skater and rider,” said Thompson. “We are the antithesis of expertise in terms of what we demand from our customers.”
Thompson himself is actually learning as he goes, at least when it comes to real estate development.
“I’m not a developer, I’m not an architect, this isn’t a financial play,” he said of his purchase of Skate Escape. “We’re not sophisticated investors. This is about saving the old ballpark, having fun, and making it a place we want it to be for the next generation.”
Midtown businesses like Skate Escape are ready to serve you, and they need your help this summer. From posting a positive Yelp review to posting pics of your purchases on social media, there are many ways you can show how you "Love Local." Head over to this page for a list of ideas.