Rideau Rollers brings “rollerskating renaissance” to Chinatown

Rollerskating rideau rollers
Alysha Gardner (right), owner of Rideau Rollers on Somerset Street West, with wife Jasmin (left) on opening day.

With Rideau Rollers, Alysha Gardner is spearheading the revival of a rollerskating culture in the city and bringing variety to the streets of Chinatown.

Rideau Rollers opened its doors earlier this month at 787 Somerset St. W. as the only store of its kind in Eastern Ontario. Aiming to serve an “underground” community of rollerskaters, Gardner said Rideau Rollers has seen success in a short time.

Offering everything from derby and recreational skates to light-up wheels, colourful laces and protective gear, Rideau Rollers is on track to make $20,000 this month, Gardner said.

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While this is the Belleville native’s “first jab” at business ownership, Gardner is no stranger to rollerskating. After moving to Ottawa for school and working from home for U.S.-based companies, Gardner joined a local rollerskating league to meet people. 

When Neon Skates, a staple in the Ottawa skating community, closed, Gardner said it left a gap. 

“That’s where I got my first rollerskates. I didn’t know a lot of people in Ottawa, I didn’t have a network, so I joined the league and got into the community,” Gardner said. “It was a blow to the community that there was nowhere you could go to get fitted, to get advice … you had to drive to Montreal.”

Gardner began offering fittings and advice but was quickly overwhelmed with demand.

“I did it for about a year, but I was so busy that I was like, ‘Oh, I should make this a full-time job,’” Gardner laughed. “It’s all come from there.”

The storefront in Chinatown offered accessibility and walkability, as well as a “vibrant” neighbourhood, all within budget.

“A lot of customers are students and there’s a bus stop right outside the store. The old (Neon Skates) store was in the market and then they moved out to Westboro and when I was a student it was hard to get out there,” Gardner said. “It’s such a beautiful, vibrant neighbourhood, with places to get a bite to eat, so people come to the store and then go to get bubble tea. It’s great.”

Rideau Rollers rollerskating store
The location at 787 Somerset Street West offered exactly what Rideau Rollers needed, owner Alysha Gardner said.

Gardner received funding from Futurpreneur Canada to get Rideau Rollers off the ground and has been careful with expenses, ensuring that the store is already breaking even.

“We’re a small space packed to the rafters, so we have a lot of inventory, but everything is DIY — I installed floors, peg walls, everything myself,” Gardner said. “The goal has been to do this as fast and with as low overhead as possible and feel out the product selection, giving some runway to do some trial and error, and the funding has given us a bit of cushion.

“We’re really focusing on our local setup and just getting the store running super smoothly. And then, at the end of this year, there will be a seasonal curve and we’ll look at switching e-commerce providers and going hard on advertising.”

While rollerskating is often associated with the early 2000s, the activity is seeing a “revival” or “rollerskating renaissance” after becoming trendy on TikTok and Instagram during the pandemic, Gardner said. 

“We’ve always been around under the surface, since the revival, but it’s taking off in the public consciousness,” Gardner explained. 

“The community has been super supportive, people who skated as kids or at old rinks have been coming in to ask for tuneups or see how they can get back into it. It’s really positive as far as the sentiment goes and it’s definitely an uphill trajectory,” Gardner said. “Hopefully we can ride that and give people what they want and have enough skates at a good price point to let people try it out.

As the only store of its kind in Eastern Ontario, Rideau Rollers is attracting both online and in-person sales from all over the region, a prospect that Chinatown BIA director Yukang Li said is “exciting” for the community.

Yukang Li, director of the Chinatown BIA, said stores like Rideau Rollers provide new options and variety to the neighbourhood.

At one point during the pandemic, Li said about 25 per cent of storefronts in Chinatown were vacant, but now businesses are starting to come back. And while Chinatown might be known for great food from its variety of restaurants, Li said businesses like Gardner’s are key to revitalizing the neighbourhoood.

“The majority are restaurants and grocery stores, but we have financial services and other souvenir stores, breweries, hair salons … but (Rideau Rollers) is something new,” he said. “I’m so happy to see more forms of businesses coming to the community. It means more choices, more services for residents and visitors.”

Chinatown has not been immune to the challenges faced by other centrally located Ottawa BIAs, with business owners navigating increased drug use, crime and homelessness. But Gardner said that, in the time since Rideau Rollers opened, there have not been many issues.

If anything, supply chain issues are the biggest problem, Gardner said, as Rideau Rollers struggles to keep up with demand. Gardner has been running into issues with domestic suppliers and distributors for the protective gear sold at Rideau Rollers.

“Part of my biggest problem is we’re just selling so much that we can’t restock. I would love for people to just pick what they want rather than have to work with them for good alternatives,” Gardner said. “I’m sitting here looking at empty pegs.”

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