.Silicon Alleys: Circle-A’s New Cafe Isn’t Just Skating By

Iconic downtown San Jose skate shop now serves coffee and tea

Bob Schmelzer has finally realized his vision of expanding Circle-A with a sunny new cafe. Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth

The song “Black Juju” by Alice Cooper is blasting at 8am. A cocktail-style table sits in the center of the room, constructed with a circular piece of glass atop some tires from a 1963 Belvedere. I am in the corner drinking a cup of English breakfast from Satori Tea Company. Artwork created with skateboard decks surrounds me. There are no hipsters anywhere.

I’m not describing my apartment. This is the newly revamped Circa-A Skate Shop, operated by Bob Schmelzer in downtown San Jose, a swirling-glass retail space across from Hammer Theatre, a business approaching 22 years, making it one of the oldest continuously operating retail establishments in all of downtown. People already come here to get trucks and wheels installed on boards all day long. Kids already line up overnight to buy the newest Nike skate sneakers once a month. Pieces of 35-year-old Gremic boards already grace the joint like museum artifacts, leftover from when Schmelzer was a sponsored pro. Now Circle-A serves coffee, tea and espresso.

“I wanted to offer something different, offer a specialty coffee vibe here, and I’ve always felt that it works with skateboarding,” Schmelzer said. “You see a lot of stores out there—bike shops, running shoe shops—that sell coffee inside, and they’re great stores, but how much culture is there in the biking and the running, compared to skateboarding, with the art, the music and all that? So I just thought it was a better mix. Not only would it add to the skateboard shop side, but also make an interesting cafe.”

Unlike other retail businesses, customers regularly use Circle-A as a meetup spot before they skate the parks, the streets, or even jump on a train to San Francisco to skate up there. Schmelzer often finds himself in a conversation with one customer, but then has to switch to accommodate whoever else comes in. Now there’s a cafe for everyone to hang out. Even though there hasn’t been a full-blown grand opening yet, SJSU students and staff have already discovered the place, as have some of the local working stiffs.

Going back to the ’70s, San Jose has always been one of the skateboarding capitals of the country in terms of the talent that emerged here, as well as homemade ramps, curbs, empty pools and street tricks that appear in magazines and videos even still. But these days, Circle-A is the only remaining real skate shop outside the malls. Now Schmelzer is the only one in the South Bay to serve Wrecking Ball Coffee.

And just to prove that tea is not for geriatric old biddies with bad perfume, Schmelzer serves an English breakfast, a jasmine green tea and an Egyptian chamomile, all from San Jose’s Satori Tea, and each a simple drink. You don’t need esoteric tea knowledge of any sort.

“From growing up with English skateboarders, English tea drinkers, I grew up on PG Tips,” Schmelzer said, of his younger days up and down California. “That’s exactly where I came from. Friends like Bod Boyle and Steve Douglas, you talked to them, they wanted to drink tea.”

Just as skateboarding goes with tea, for at least 40 years it’s also overlapped with hot-rod car culture, at least partly thanks to Big Daddy Roth. Listening to Schmelzer talk about the sleek designs of his Slayer espresso machine, his Mahlkonig grinder and even the Hoosier drag slicks that comprise the table in the center of the space, one doesn’t need any more proof. Everything is connected.

“When I saw my first Slayer, I thought it looked like a hot rod,” he said, adding that the cost of the Slayer is partly what delayed him opening the store for so long. “I like the gear. I like the hard gear. I’m learning how to be a barista so I can pour some drinks, but I’m more into gear, upkeeping, customizing, cleaning.”

From my spot at the corner table, I look through the glass and across Paseo de San Antonio. The Hammer Theatre marquee, facing the northbound traffic on Third Street, now mentions Circle-A. “Coffee and Skateboards” now appears between Urinetown and Leonard Bernstein. I guess the shop has finally made it.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.


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