The Soul of Spirit Skate Shop

Despite enduring the pitfalls of growing old in tandem with a subculture that first gained mainstream prominence a half-century ago, Clay Taylor, the 58-year-old owner of Montana’s last best hard-goods skate shop in downtown Kalispell, is living the dream

By Tristan Scott
Mark Schurke skates at Kalispell Skatepark. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Perched on a stool behind the counter at Spirit Skate Shop in downtown Kalispell, Clay Taylor’s foot is swaddled in bandages but his passion for skateboarding is as enduring as it was when he was a teenager in 1970s southern California, haunting his mailbox for the latest issue of “Thrasher” magazine and hopping fences to ride the kidney-shaped contours of desiccated swimming pools during the worst drought in the state’s history.

“This morning I was brushing my teeth, and I was busting tricks around the sink basin with a fingerboard,” Taylor said recently, describing a scaled-down replica toy that a person maneuvers with their fingers, rather than their feet — his being compromised following a surgical amputation to address complications from a blockage in his femoral artery. For Taylor, whose primary definition of “coping” differs from its popular use, the medical setback amounts to another pump-bump in the flow bowl of life, and he brushes off the severity of the consequences.

Having adopted a degree of willpower and fortitude common among those who fall in love with the thing that hurts them, and never one to dwell on an infirmity, Taylor’s eyes light up like a pinball machine when asked about his introduction to skateboarding, producing a stack of skate park membership passes from as far back as 1975, each one laminated with a photo ID.

“On top of your membership dues, you’d have to pay $2.50 for a two-hour session,” he recalls. “The elbow pads, knee pads and helmets were all stored in a big sweaty box. It was disgusting. But back then you did what you had to do to skate.”

In that respect, not much has changed for Taylor.

Clay Taylor and Lindsey Nelson of Spirit Skate Shop in downtown Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
Boards and posters on the walls of Spirit Skate Shop. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As the owner of northwest Montana’s only hardgoods skateboard shop — a brick-and-mortar time capsule animating the corner of Center Street and First Avenue in downtown Kalispell, its interior walls festooned with the battered decks of a thousand heroes and wallpapered with a kaleidoscopic array of skate stickers — Taylor has navigated a business landscape upended by ecommerce. Rather than call it quits, however, he’s leveraged the DIY aesthetic that forged skate culture to marshal a legion of local support, and he’s come out the other end with a manual cash register and a flip phone, conducting all of his business sales through a traditional retail model that harkens back to the golden era of skateboarding.

“It’s been a challenge since day one but it’s worth it. I’m living the dream,” Taylor said on a gray mid-February afternoon, a skateboard DVD playing in one corner of the shop, and a turn table bleating in another corner, where he sells just enough vinyl to sustain his collecting obsession. “As a kid, all I wanted in life to own either a skate shop or a record shop. So, actually I’m living both of my dreams.”

By living those dreams, and by laying bare his relentless passion for an activity that mainstream culture commonly associates with youthful angst, Taylor has introduced generations of kids to the therapeutic benefits afforded by skateboarding and skateboard culture, helping smooth their paths forward to adulthood.

“Inside, I’m still just a little kid, so I understand where they’re coming from,” said Taylor, producing a misshapen steel file that’s been warped by hundreds of grip-tape applications as he helps customers gain purchase on their boards, as well as in daily life. 

“I’ve gripped 10,000 boards with that file,” Taylor said. “I’m on this side of the counter today, but 40 years ago I was on the other side of the counter just like them. Knowing that someone else has been in their shoes gives them confidence.”

Lucas Holloway skates at Kalispell Skatepark. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
Old photos of Clay Taylor, owner of Spirit Skate Shop, hang on the walls of the business in downtown Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Many of those kids have grown up. Some of them are raising children of their own. None of them draw any distinction between Clay Taylor and Spirit Skate Shop, which one customer describes as “like an extension of himself.”

That’s according to Matt Holloway, a longtime local educator and Spirit Skate Shop disciple who shares Taylor’s enthusiasm for promoting skateboarding as a positive activity for kids growing up in the Flathead Valley. Holloway helped form the Whitefish Skatepark Association (WSA) nearly 20 years ago, mining the community for financial and municipal support to build the Dave Olseth Memorial Skatepark in Whitefish. 

Holloway also helped foster the community initiative to raise $350,000 for the Whitefish park’s expansion that was completed last September. Along those same lines, Holloway and a clutch of other local skaters formed the Badrock Skatepark Association in 2021 to build support for a park in Columbia Falls, an initiative bolstered by the group’s grassroots fundraising chops, that have helped net $400,000.

Spirit Skate Shop. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
New boards on display at Spirit Skate Shop. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Still, Holloway can recall a not-so-long-ago past when community-wide support for skateparks didn’t come so easy, and he credits Taylor and Spirit Skate Shop with helping to raise the profile of skateboarding in northwest Montana.

“He’s the ultimate ambassador for skateboarding because everything he knows about skateboarding is primary information that he collected in real time,” Holloway said. “He grew up with skateboarding and he’ll grow old with skateboarding.” 

“He is skateboarding,” Holloway added. “He refers to the shop in the third person, like, ‘the shop appreciates it.’ I think the shop to him is a living entity unto its own, this dynamic place with its own forcefield of energy, and it’s his mission to keep it alive.”

Assisting Taylor in the mission to nurture Sprit Skate Shop and contribute to local initiatives to expand skateboarding’s footprint in northwest Montana is Lindsey Nelson, who grew up in Libby before moving to Kalispell as a teenager. Searching for a way to fit in, she discovered skateboarding and, soon after, Spirit Skate Shop.

And while Taylor is undoubtedly the soul of Spirit Skate Shop, he didn’t start it. That honor belongs to Mark DeLorme, a Kalispell native who founded the skate shop 20 years ago with a $40,000 loan and a desire to grow the local skate scene into something that wasn’t met with criminal penalties. To that end, DeLorme and his high school friend James Reeves adopted the roles as the poster “children” of skateboarding, with both men working alongside Kalispell Parks and Recreation to foster a culture in which skateboarders give back to their community.

Today, their legacy lives on, manifested not only in the skate shop, but also in the form of broader community acceptance, including skateboarding camps in Kalispell and Whitefish.

“The skate shop is such an important pillar of this community because it sort of created this army of good Samaritans,” Reeves, now a filmmaker living in Boise, Idaho, said during a recent visit to Kalispell. “There’s been a cascade effect of responsible behavior that’s helped shift the perception of skateboarding in this community. I feel like Mark and I helped plant that seed, and then Clay came along with so much fire and passion. He turned that place into a world class skate shop that big-city markets wish they had.” 

Although Taylor’s community investments are recognized on a local level, his commitment to the shop gained wide recognition when, in January 2015, Spirit Skate Shop was featured in “Thrasher Magazine,” which christened it “Skate Shop of the Month.” Taylor owns every copy of the magazine since it debuted in 1981, and described the accolades as one of the great honors of his life.

“I think a large segment of the community probably has no idea what a rare and remarkable gift Clay and his shop are to the valley,” added Holloway. “His contributions are really positive and he’s a great mentor. He pushes kids to take care of themselves, stay sober, and his enthusiasm for skateboarding is contagious.”

Less than a month after giving a local journalist a tutorial of Spirit Skate Shop from his post on the stool behind the store’s counter, another health complication sent Taylor to Missoula for a bypass surgery. Although his healing journey has been slow, and his return to the shop gradual, fortunately, Taylor’s found the cure.

“Skateboarding is the fountain of youth.”