Salemtown Board Co.
Can Nashville's most famous social enterprise stay true to its roots as its neighborhood gentrifies?
Will Anderson of Salemtown Board Co.
A mid-afternoon rain is pounding down outside Nashville’s Sixth Avenue Skatepark, the city’s only indoor facility, which sits in the southwest shadows of downtown.
Despite the weather, just a handful of kids roll through the park. Nathaniel Covington, the in-house skate shop’s manager, has a few minutes to talk about the city’s scene.
“Skateboarders of Nashville have always had their hands in this …,” Covington says, then pauses, searching for the right words, “… in the new Nashville, if you want to say it. The artists, the musicians, everything that’s pushing what’s going on in Nashville, most of them skateboard.”
In case you haven’t seen the flood of stories pouring out of New York magazines, Nashville is burgeoning. Music, the city’s perennial tent pole, is more vibrant than ever, with more than just country acts emerging. Rock bands like Diarrhea Planet and pop songwriters like Mikky Ekko (“Stay”) and Meghan Trainor (“All About That Bass”) have all gained national acclaim.
But the time of a single-faceted Nashville defined by its music is over. This emerging Southern Metropolis is a city rushing outward with an explosion of art and fashion and food and urban living. The New York Times has fallen in love with the city’s hot chicken; handmade messenger bags from Tucker & Bloom and bow ties from Otis James are just a few local products gaining worldwide followings. With a regional population predicted to increase more than a million by 2035, the city will match Denver in density and surpass Portland in size.
Nowhere is the change more apparent than a mile north from the city center in a small neighborhood called Salemtown.
Driving down Salemtown’s streets is pleasant. New brick condo buildings are divided by cute columned houses with flowering planters on the porches. As you move east toward the Cumberland River, even the warehouses look groomed, and the rare arcs of old graffiti in the alleys seem forgotten by their writers. The neighborhood has almost completely flipped from the low-income area it once was, as has its neighbors Germantown and East Nashville. It was a different place when Salemtown Board Co. opened its doors in 2012.
Jacob Henley, a Memphis native and hip-hop record company talent scout turned minister, moved to the neighborhood in 2010. He was looking for a place to invest in Nashville — and not just monetarily. He chose Salemtown.
“I wanted to move into a neighborhood where I could make a difference,” he said in a promotional video released last November (and watchable below). “Where there was a need, an obvious need. Where I could serve my neighbors, where I could have a positive influence on my community.”
Soon after he settled in, Henley, a full-time pastor at a Salemtown church, began playing basketball at the neighborhood community center. On the courts he met young men without fathers or positive male role models in their lives. He met boys who seemed destined to drop out of school and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Here was the need, and all he required was an idea to address it.
“I guess I have what you can call an entrepreneurial spirit,” Henley says, “just always thinking of weird or crazy business ideas. Nothing really stuck until Salemtown Board Co.”
Henley had met Will Anderson at a wedding in 2011, a year before Anderson himself moved to Salemtown. Anderson, who had recently earned his master’s in divinity from Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, was coming to the same conclusions as Henley regarding the community’s boys.
“We need dads,” Anderson says. “We need good husbands. Those are the types of men that you don’t just build families around, but you build neighborhoods and cultures around.
“When I think about the Nashville that I want to live in, if this city is packed full of young men who show up to work on time, work hard, and are proud of good work done, that’s a legit city.”
Anderson, originally from Central Florida, had a background in both skateboarding and carpentry. Furthermore, he was already thinking of creating a business that would bring on a staff of some of the neighborhood kids.
“Hey, can we make skateboards?” Anderson remembers Henley asking.
A few weeks later, in October of 2012, the pair traveled to Bucksnort, Tenn., where Henley’s father had a wood shop, to cut their first boards. They also brought their first employees, Salemtown residents Kendrius Smith and Brandon Smith (no relation). With the first boards completed, Henley says he knew immediately that they had made something they could sell.
The next month, Salemtown Board Co. launched a website to sell its products. The cruiser boards, originally hewed from reclaimed wood, are now crafted from hand-tooled oak, and the company has expanded its offerings to include seven-ply maple decks sourced from Arkansas. Two years after its founding, the company is predicted to sell its 1,000th board this fall.
In January, after Henley’s first child arrived, Anderson bought Henley’s stake in the company.
“I didn’t feel like it was something that I was called to do for longer than a year,” Henley says. “I felt like it was a vision that I had and I was meant to see it get off of the ground.”
He’s still at the same church in Salemtown, and he still plays basketball with his former employees. The community is small and the houses close together. “If you live in the neighborhood and you’re walking,” he says, “you usually see your neighbors.”
But now it’s up to Will Anderson to steer the future of Salemtown Board Co.
In a dusty T-shirt and shorts, Anderson is sweating nonstop on the August day I stop by the factory. The white cinderblock walls of the garage-like space seem to hold the summertime heat despite the open floor-to-ceiling garage doors and industrial fans. Will’s brother Schuyler is here, too. Fresh off his spring graduation from a small Christian college near Boston, he joined his brother’s company over the summer and now holds the title of chief financial officer and marketing director. Will is listed as owner, producer and salesman. They’re talking about Kendrius Smith, who graduated from high school this past spring but is behind when it comes to enrolling in college for the fall semester.
“If you threw him into a full-time, living-on-campus (college), I don’t think he’d do well,” Schuyler says. “If he had two years at a community college, living at home, his mom knows what he’s doing.”
“I’ll know what he’s doing,” Will replies.
Salemtown Board Co.'s Will and Schuyler Anderson
Salemtown Board Co. is a business, yes, but Will Anderson plays roles with his employees that extend far beyond the purview of the typical boss. Sometimes, he's a father; sometimes an older brother; sometimes a pastor and confidant or that cool guy in the neighborhood who has his shit together but still rides a motorcycle. Where Will the boss ends and Will the community leader begins is blurred under the auspices of skateboarding and sawdust.
“I think that having a small business and being these kids’ boss, it infuses a sense of authority,” Will explains. “I’m able to have conversations with these kids. If I was some guy they hung out with, I’d never be able to talk to about certain topics.
“There’s one employee,” he says, careful not to name names, “probably early next week we’re sitting down to have a ‘come to Jesus’ talk. His mom’s called me — like, he’s acting up, he’s not showing up to work. So because this is a job, I’m able to sit him down and be like, look, you’re in trouble. He’s had lots of people in his life yell at him, but he’s never had people in his life who care about him and sit down and say that these are the implications of the decisions that you’re making. You’re not a child.”
There are plenty of artisans like Salemtown Board Co. all over the country, making handmade whatevers. But Salemtown fits in a unique subset called social enterprises, for-profit companies that steer their gains toward a need in society instead of toward shareholders. Salemtown Board Co., which has focused on hiring local young men, is one of several in the new Nashville. Just a few blocks away in a converted warehouse space, Nisolo partners with leatherworkers in Peru to create shoes. On the west side Thistle Farms creates bath and beauty products, the sale of which benefits women leaving prostitution, trafficking and addiction.
“I’m convinced that we don’t have to choose between making money by whatever means possible and oh, we’re not really going to make money but we’re going to do something good,” Will says. “We’re still a business. I need to eat, I need to pay my rent, I need to pay cell phone bills. But I don’t need to live in a huge house. I don’t need to drive a super-nice car. I don’t need to buy every piece of clothing that I think is awesome. If the goal was to just run the company as efficiently as possible …”
“… we wouldn’t hire kids from the neighborhood,” Schuyler finishes.
“I’d hire people I knew were going to show up,” Will continues. “I’d just hire a bunch of college kids with $200 denim and struggling beards and have them in here cranking it out, and pay them 75 percent of what I’m paying kids that are showing up late.”
He tells the story of a well-meaning family friend who got snarky and asked if it wasn’t a little disrespectful giving his neighborhood employees little more than manual-labor jobs like drilling holes and sanding skate decks. Why not accounting or graphic design?
“I’m trying to get these kids to not take 18 bathroom breaks,” Will says. “But we’re just at the point where we’re like, show up consistently and if you can learn to do that, we’re going to high-five each other. When we get there, then maybe we can take a strength-finders test.”
This type of involvement and investment in a few individuals takes time, and it’s based on the thesis that people are a more valuable commodity than money. Money is easy, Will says. If he was just concerned with sending African-American kids to school, he’d put on a suit and tie, drive down to the affluent suburb of Brentwood, and raise money for scholarship funds through the various rotaries.
“That would be a lot more glamorous, I would sweat a lot less, and I could raise a lot more money to give out to a lot more people,” he says, wiping his forehead. “For these young men, I don’t think they just need more money. I don’t think they need a program to take them from high school to college. There’s so much that I had to learn that these young men have to learn. If you just show up, work hard, do what you say you’re going to do, and do good work, you’ll be able to put food on the table. That’s what we’re trying to do: Just give these kids an opportunity to learn how to work hard.”
From its inception in late 2012, Salemtown Board Co.’s mission of empowering local boys has caught the attention of national media, and the company has been featured in Vogue, Transworld Skateboarding, and People. Its boards turned up in ESPN's holiday gift guide. CBS, PBS, Fox Business and CNN have all filmed stories. The media onslaught has brought with it a lot of assumptions about the company and its size.
“People see our online presence and then reference our marketing or sales people: ‘Have your marketing people call us,’" Will says, “We’re like, ‘So you want us to call you.’ We’ve been a child company with a nice website.”
But after two years, that’s changing, just like the neighborhood. The skateboard company’s beach vibe seems out of place when the nearest salt water is a day’s drive away. After the holidays, Will and Schuyler will begin gently rebranding the company with a decidedly outdoorsy feel. They’ll still be making their hallmark skateboards, but they’ll also begin offering backpacks and water bottles. The spirit of Santa Monica Pier will be replaced with bombing hills on the way to an Appalachian Trail campsite. Will says he’ll always remember the beach of his youth fondly — “like a girl you broke up with, going back to look at her Facebook page” — but his home is in Nashville, as is his fiancee and his company.
As his company changes, there are still plenty of questions regarding the change the Salemtown community is undergoing. Brandon and Kendrius may be the last few employees to come from the neighborhood, and Will Anderson isn’t blind to what he calls the “tidal wave” of turnover over the last 18 months. What happens to a community-based company when its community is sliding away like mercury?
Henley, who walks through Salemtown’s streets every day, admits he’s part of the problem, one more nail in Salemtown’s gentrification coffin. The house he bought four years ago is new, built on the land where a crack house was torn down. The rising property taxes he pays push others out, and even if old-guard community members manage to sell their homes high, like Chris Rock said, there’s a difference being rich and being wealthy.
“Honestly, it’s tough,” Will Anderson says. “It doesn’t make sense to stay in a neighborhood that’s $2,500-a-month rentals, and all the kids that work for you have all moved to North Nashville, Antioch, or Madison. Our name is Salemtown Board Co., but this is more about individuals than it is about anything else.”
It’s possible that if Salemtown Board Co. continues to grow, it may relocate out of Salemtown to another neighborhood in Nashville where it can continue to affect change among the young men of the community. Salemtown may be changing, but Salemtown Board Co.’s mission remains the same.