During quarantine, my 8-year old daughter decided she wanted to learn how to roller skate, and asked if I’d come skating with her. I’d last strapped wheels to my feet in the early-2000s, coming out of the rollerblading boom that began about ten years earlier. I’d always enjoyed skating around the city — you can move fast and maneuver in ways you simply can’t on a bike — but a combination of advancing age and an ill-advised flirtation with skateboarding had led me away from the sport, and I'd hung up my skates years ago.

But I wouldn’t pass up a chance to teach my daughter to shred, so I began looking for a new pair of inline skates. Surprisingly, they were very difficult to find — all of the big dedicated blade shops had closed long before the pandemic, and the city’s remaining sporting goods stores just didn’t stock the kind of high-quality skates I needed. Online stores were no better — with skates you really need to try them on, because fits vary widely across brands, and those stores were also mostly sold out. After some frustrating hours of research, I came across a link to a new skate shop called Kinetic Expression, located in Queens, which promised a good selection of skates.

The small shop is located on a quiet, nondescript alley in Woodside. To avoid crowding, it's appointment only, with the address only given after you book your time — kind of like a speakeasy. The proprietor, Arnav "Sonic" Shah, opened up the shop three months ago. He’s a veteran of the city’s skate scene, and as he took my size and suggested a skate configuration, he showed me around, and we got to talking about inline skating in New York.

Eventually, I bought a pair of FR1 3x110s, and I’ve spent an enjoyable week getting back into skating alongside my daughter, who is learning on some aggressive looking Circle Society "Party in Pink" 4-wheelers. To share the joy of my new hobby with others, I asked Sonic if he’d answer some questions, and he graciously agreed:

Sonic Shah skating slalom

Can you tell us about the history of the inline scene in New York? When did it get started, how has it changed, and what does it look like today? Has the pandemic changed anything?

Like what we saw in the rest of the country, the inline scene in NYC was popular throughout the '90s and crashed during the early 2000s. Unlike the rest of the country, NYC’s scene never died out completely as community events continued onward, albeit with diminishing numbers and a relatively high average age of participants that increased by one each year.

However, in recent years, we’ve seen a huge influx of skaters, within our community as well individuals just out and about, including children, teenagers, young adults, and even less young adults -- and this happened in many places across the US. So we've already been at the cusp of new growth. Then the pandemic ignited an explosion of skaters as we’re now witnessing numbers that we haven’t seen in many, many years. Obviously, plenty of people are looking for something fun to do given that bars, restaurants, and travel are on hold. But less obvious: many were already thinking about getting into -- or getting back into -- skating, and the pandemic finally gave them the opportunity to do it.

How did you get into skating? What kind of skating do you most enjoy these days?

Like every other New Yorker around at the time, I first started skating in the late 90s (1997 to be exact). I was just a kid, finding joy with sidewalk hockey and rolling around local neighborhoods in Queens. Unlike most people, I never really stopped skating in the many years since. These days, I take on multiple forms of skating including slalom (artistic movements around tiny cones), speed and ultradistance (including marathon events and even skating across the state of Iowa last year), and my favorite: urban skating the streets either by myself (often for commuting) or at community led social skating events.

How is it possible that a city the size of New York had no inline stores left before you opened?

This fact astounds many people but it simply follows a greater trend of the sale of goods moving online and city commercial rents no longer being sustainable for niche businesses, especially for a sport that had been in decline until recent years. And according to the manager of Blades, the last proper holdout for inline skates in NYC until their closing in 2016, it’s expensive to physically stock skates because they take up a lot of space due to all the different models and sizes.

So on my end, sustainability is a priority. I’m using a modest amount of space and only stocking a handful of models with interchangeable configurations in order to serve the most customers with as little product on hand. And this retailing endeavor remains a side hustle and not my primary means of survival, so I have no intention to quit my day job as a software engineer.

You're stocking FR skates — how'd you get into that brand?

I have some personal history with the owners of FR Skates (these folks also run their sister brand, SEBA) who happen to be longtime skaters and highly involved with skating events across the world. They’ve gone out of their way to support my skating endeavors through multiple means, including working with me to get this shop off the ground, an idea originally conceived two years ago. So while I might be biased towards their products, I can attest that they’re some of the best suited skates for New Yorkers because they’re thoughtfully designed by top notch skaters to high standards and are built to handle urban environments. So it’s no wonder they’ve been popular among our skating community, well before I showed up to be the first to sell them locally.

What's the most popular skate configuration, in terms of number of wheels and size? Are certain configurations better for certain skating styles?

The 4x80mm has been a tried and true setup for decades, and is still the one I recommend and sell to most skaters, due to its versatility across skating styles -- recreational, commuting, and stylistic forms -- and is good for beginners and advanced skaters alike. That said, the 3x110mm option has grown in popularity among skaters looking to carry more speed or cover greater distance.

You're also a skating instructor — what are the most important moves for a NYC skater? How long does it take to learn?

As someone who not only teaches skating, but trains and certifies new instructors through Skate Instructors Association, I always emphasize the basics because they lay the groundwork for everything else. So exercises to establish balance and control, especially while rolling on one leg, can help a skater attain a safer and more enjoyable experience, allow them to pick up more advanced moves with greater ease, and look much cooler too! For New York skating in particular, I’d also recommend a handful of other skills including stopping, turning, executing a scissored position, and even falling properly (which will inevitably happen).

Skating is like other action sports, comparable to skiing, and some people pick it up naturally while most others face a tough beginner’s learning curve and need more time. For those finding difficulty, video tutorials, like ones from yours truly, can be a boon. But nothing compares to having an instructor to work with one’s particular situation, whether they’re new to skating, coming back to it, or a long-timer.

Where are your favorite spots to skate in the city?

As someone who commutes all over the city on skates, at least in pre-pandemic days when I had places to go, the streets themselves hold a special place for me. And NYC streets are among the most accessible places to skate because of our ever growing bike lane network and a road culture where automobile drivers are generally attentive to the uncountable other wheeled device users along with all the other chaos occupying our roads. That said, the streets can be a daunting place and I suggest getting used to them by attending a social street skating event first (see below). And for those looking to stay off the roads, NYC has so many parks offering big slabs of pavement, which I take advantage of to teach, work drills, and practice slalom.

Are there any events you recommend to meet other skaters?

The skating community in NYC is especially diverse, friendly, and welcoming. And our members work hard to put together events most days of the week. It’s worth checking out the following:

  • Empire Skate Club - the central hub linking inline events of all kinds in NYC
  • Wednesday Night Skate - the country’s largest social group skate, where participants cover 8-13 miles of NYC streets
  • Empire Speed Team - inline speed skating practice for all levels, with technique work and laps in Central Park and Prospect Park
  • Thursday Night Skate - a skating hangout rolling between various spots in the city featuring a variety of skating disciplines including aggressive skating, and suitable for roller skaters too
  • Monday Night Skate - yet another street skating event which just formed this summer

Any final thoughts about life on wheels?

It’s exhilarating to see how skating has evolved over the decades. While on the surface it looks like something that’s “coming back”, it’s more accurately become much greater than it ever has been. There’s more disciplines and styles to enjoy, better equipment to play with, and amazing communities to support new possibilities to express oneself on wheels!