Pharmacy Boardshop is an institution in skateboarding. Started by Donny Damron and Jared Lee in Victorville, CA in 1997, the shop now boasts 10 stores in locations spanning from California to Colorado. Despite its current empire status, Pharmacy’s beginning is as humble as it gets. “I was 19 years old when we launched the first store. Long story short, I ended up going to jail when I was 18 for stealing cars,” Damron, 41, explains via phone from his office at Pharmacy’s headquarters in Victorville. “I was super close to doing a lot of time. I told myself that if I didn’t end up going to state prison, I was done with crime. When I got out, I ended up getting a job at a pizza place. I also started selling blank decks that I got from a factory in San Diego. That’s basically how it started.”
Saying that he started small is an understatement. Damron would buy ten blank boards from the factory at ten dollars a piece, then upsell them to Victorville skaters for $20. The business didn’t show any promise of progressing past a side hustle until Damron met Jared Lee while working a gig at a glass factory. The two bonded over shared cultural interests: “In an environment working in a factory like that, when you meet someone that you have something in common with—whether it be skateboarding or music—it totally stands out. Everybody there was blue-collar workers. When I started working there, there were only a couple of people in the whole factory that were into punk music or skating. So we instantly became friends.”
The friendship blossomed into a business relationship when the two realized that they both had an interest in going into retail. Damron recalls, “[Jared] was talking about wanting to open a store. So did I. I had already been trying through selling blank decks.” The perfect storm of circumstances soon helped their dream become a reality, starting with the fact that there was only one shop in Victorville that was remotely similar to their idea, and that shop only focused on in-line hockey and rollerblades. “That made it easy for us to do a skate shop. We opened our first store with five grand each. We rented a little building, bought a sign, collected some racks, and bought some display cases from an old shop in North County San Diego that closed. We started super small.”
Anyone that’s ever worked in a startup environment knows the volatile, scrambling nature of kickstarting your own business. You see, both Donny and Jared were still working at the glass factory when Pharmacy opened its doors. Between juggling shifts, trying to market at the local high school and house parties, and manning the store, the duo were spread a little thin. Ultimately, all of this caught up with Donny and he ended up losing his factory job.
To hear Donny tell it, it sounds like the classic blessing-in-disguise story: “I would open the store and work until 5:00. Then, I would go to the glass factory and work the night shift. After a couple of months, I ended up getting fired from the factory. If you got caught falling asleep on your break, you got fired. That was the number one rule that you couldn’t break. After that, I was committed to the store full-time. That’s when it really took off. After four or five months, we had enough money to start carrying shoes.”
And selling shoes proved to be Pharmacy’s true turning point. The shop opened right in the midst of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s skate shoe craze. The public at large couldn’t get enough of them—and Pharmacy had the market completely cornered in Victorville because skate shoes weren’t sold at mall stores yet.
Donny recounts Pharmacy’s first foray into footwear: “We killed it. Those were some of the biggest years that we ever had... There were a few other people in our area selling them. But they didn’t carry as many as we did.” Then the infamous Osiris D3 arrived, and things went completely bananas: “When the D3 came out and Osiris got hot, it was just insane! I would order size runs of those shoes and do 24 pairs per size, maybe 30 per size of the good colors. And we would sell through. That’s what basically built our business—those early days of skate shoes.”
At this point, the money was coming in and Donny had his eye on more locations. But the approach he took to expansion was more akin to building a network of friends than a corporate structure. Donny explains the method behind Pharmacy’s growth trajectory: “Our model is kind of like a franchise, but we’re not necessarily a franchise. Anyone that is an owner or partner in a store with me is someone who’s been a part of the shop for many years. The second store I opened was in Palmdale in ’99. It did well as soon as we opened it. Our third store was in Lancaster, 10 miles away from the second. Then, I bought out Jared—he had become a silent partner after a few years.”
“We basically learned how to run a business.”
It was during this expansion that Cory Bosacki came into the Pharmacy fold. Cory, who is currently Pharmacy’s Brand and Product Manager, started working at the store in 1999. Despite riding for another nearby shop, as a youth, he would hang out at Pharmacy and skate its mini ramp. When he needed a job after graduating high school, Donny hooked him up. Cory was later instrumental in building Pharmacy’s relationship with The Hundreds.
“I was the buyer when we started carrying the Hundreds. I remember taking notice of it online, and Bobby’s blog,” Cory explains when asked how Pharmacy discovered the brand. “I sent an email, and then shortly after I met up with Scotty at Agenda. This was back when Agenda was 10 by 10 cubicles a half mile from ASR. They were stoked to sell us some product, and I remember Scotty giving me a ton of stickers at the booth. I was hyped on the brand.”
At this point, things were going well. Pharmacy was now operating in multiple locations in different areas of California, and it had progressed past just core skate brands to include streetwear staples including: Freshjive, The Hundreds, Crooks and Castles, and Green Apple Tree. Cory remembers, “When we started selling streetwear, I remember it feeling like early ’90s skateboarding, the brands were small and not real popular but customers that did know about them were really hyped on them and sought them out. The streetwear brands fell right in line with the retail exclusivity and esoteric customer base of our skate brands, but the connection with the customers was built on a broader base of youth culture, music, etc.”
Donny found himself sitting alone at the helm of a ship that seemed destined for a tropical paradise. But unforeseen to most, there was trouble lurking in the waters ahead. The 2008 financial crisis affected global economies like nothing we’d seen in decades. No industry was spared—and retail was hit the hardest. With several locations open and a ton of overhead, Pharmacy pulled off a small miracle by weathering that storm unscathed. Donny describes that era as a period of quick adjustment: “I’m super into economics and free market principles. I follow a few economists. What was happening in the real estate market and how inflated it was was pretty blatant back then. So when things started slowing down and getting bad, I started cutting back on things before most retailers did.” Informed business moves like dropping snowboards and women’s clothing from the store, and moving to locations that had cheaper rent, were how Pharmacy managed to stay afloat before things turned around. And soon enough, they did.
By the early tweens, things had stabilized in the skate industry. Currently, skateboarding is as big as it’s ever been. Look no further than the Thrasher shirt that you see on nearly every corner for an indicator of its popularity. Clearly, this is good for the guy selling the shirts. While things are healthy now, it’s nowhere near where it was in its heyday according to Donny: “Our stores are doing pretty much as good as they’ve ever done. But our gross sales are still not even close to what we were doing back in ’99, ’00, and ’01. We’ve just learned how to manage our stores and run a much tighter ship. We basically learned how to run a business.”
One thing that has also helped Pharmacy’s growth is embracing the mall. Donny admits that those locations are generating a significant portion of his revenue in 2018, “We have two stores that are in malls now. Both of those have regular skate shops, but also a lot of clothing. Our mall stores carry a lot of weight for us. They’re a big part of our business now.”
Cory recalls how different things used to be: “As a kid, I remember ordering skateboards and tees over the phone by looking at photos of them published in the back of Thrasher Magazine. As a young skate shop employee, we used to look at black and white printed catalogs and availabilities and fax them in to the company when we ordered. Obviously technology and the internet has sped up every aspect of retail... I think there will always be a place for skate and streetwear brands to exist and flourish.”