An older gentleman, a retired professional who suffered from dementia, used to stop by the Skate Shop in downtown Homewood every Tuesday to while away the hours, chatting with staff and customers.
He would sometimes fall asleep, and the owner would let him nap for a while.
What kind of business lets people stop by for a nap?
One that feels like home, kind of like the old TV show, “Cheers,” where “everybody knows your name.”
“I would sometimes have to wake him up and say, ‘It’s time to go home. Your wife is looking for you,’” owner Traci Janowicz-Lillis of Homewood said.
The Skate Shop apparently was one place the man felt safe and connected, and he’s not alone. The shop has been serving skaters from its location at the northeast corner of Ridge Road and Martin Avenue for 52 years.
Lillis said the secret to the business’s success and longevity is its devotion to customers, to making the shop a place for skaters to call home.
Photos of customers from over the years fill the west wall of the shop, making the decor part family photo album.
The rest of the shop is part comfortable clutter — the parts and tools of a working skate repair shop — and part product display with colorful new skates, skateboards and various accessories.
“People compare it to a barber shop,” she said. “When people come in they become part of our skate family, and it feels like home. People in the community come in and just start talking, even when they don’t need anything.”
Lillis creates that welcoming environment naturally. The shop has been part of her life — practically her home — since she was 11 years old, when she started frequenting the shop and even pitching in when she could, she said. She became a partner in the business when she was 17.
She worked her way up the ranks from employee to co-owner to owner within a few years, eventually buying the shop from previous owner Mark Kaufman.
“I looked up to Mark as a father figure,” Lillis says. “He taught me everything I know about skates and repair and it has helped me throughout my life,” she said.
With his help initially and after decades of roller skating, selling skates and repairing skates, Lillis has become a pro at service for skaters.
“One of the biggest compliments I have in this industry was a lady who owned a roller rink (who) came in and bought skates here when she could have gotten them from wholesale. When I asked why, she said, ‘Because I want them done right.’”
The shop even gets occasional international orders. Lillis recalled selling a pair of inline skates to a customer in Denmark and a skateboard to someone in Tokyo.
In addition to offering new skates and skate repair, the shop also provides customized skates. Lillis has turned a wide variety of shoe types into skates, including combat boots, hiking boots, football cleats and even high heels.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 1, 2017, print edition of the Chronicle.