Down to business, up on skateboarding

A Pensacola native shifts his dreams of skateboard glory to owning a haven for aspiring skateboarders.

Published July 2, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - A dozen years ago, Tommie Zam moved to San Diego to try to become a professional skateboarder.

The Pensacola native flirted with the profession for a time and then spent several more years as a sales representative for skateboarding products, before settling down in St. Petersburg a few months ago and opening The Finest Skate Shop.

"When I was growing up, people said skateboarding is not going anywhere," said Zam, 31, who lives in the Old Northeast. "Now there's a lot of guys making a lot of money, making more than doctors and lawyers."

After high school, Zam gave college a try in Pensacola, but skating proved to be too loud a call. So, knowing no one, he packed up and moved to skating mecca San Diego. He worked odd jobs, skated, met lots of people, skated, learned about the business, skated, got some small endorsements and was awarded with products, but never landed a big-time gig. He had to move back to Pensacola for a time to save money and try again, but won little more than a grass roots education.

Armed with his sense and an affable personality, Zam hooked up with Axis Urethane, a skateboard wheelmaker based in St. Petersburg, and shopped the company's products in California, he said. The company asked him to move to St. Petersburg and he did, where he met his future wife, Jessica. Axis went under, Zam said, but he hooked on with a succession of other companies working throughout the Southeast.

"It was a lot of fun," Zam said of the four years he spent hawking clothes, shoes and boards for a half dozen manufacturers. "I met a lot of cool people. I'd show the products, see how the shops were run, then skate with the locals. You gotta fit in, be the cool guy."

All the while, Zam was learning more and more about the business but also missing being separated from Jessica. A year ago, he finally decided to hang up his traveling shoes and stay in St. Petersburg. He opened the shop and got married in April.

"Being on the road is hectic," he said.

Having seen the business from every angle, including that of aspiring youngster, Zam wanted The Finest to be like the best shops from his youth. Unlike other businesses that want young customers in and out, Zam encourages his clients to loiter.

"It gives kids someplace to go where they can feel comfortable," he said of his shop at 6574 Central Ave. "I wanted to have that in St. Pete. Why not have a clubhouse?"

Zam said parents of his clients are happy, too, because they know their kids will be out of trouble in the shop. Zam said parents will drop kids off and go run their errands, picking up the youngsters at the end of the day. He said he also has some parents, especially dads, who are still skaters themselves and shop with their children.

Zam sponsors a skate team named after the shop and coaches its members in the business. He teaches the 11 youngsters how to send videos of their tricks to manufacturers, who often respond with a box of products. But he said mostly he creates a positive atmosphere where kids can be kids.

"They're a bunch of good kids," he said of the youngsters who hang out in his shop watching skate videos and talking "sick tricks" in skate lingo. "They respect the shop and they respect the neighbors."

Zam also brings in guests and events, such as the Osiris skate team that will be at the shop Wednesday or the Krux Kick-Flip competition next Sunday. He fires up the grill and feeds the kids hot dogs.

Zam also works with parents who like his shop and want their kids to have safe places to skate. He's offered to circulate a petition for a new skate park, and he's working on a deal to have a sponsor-funded park built, possibly down the street from his shop. He said he's happy to share the knowledge he's picked up over the years to help the community of skaters.

"We don't bother nobody. We just do what we do," he said. "I like it. It's fun. And I stay out of trouble, too."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.