It takes a fierce game to compete with the big-boxes in the declining skateboard industry, and Orlando independents have to hustle to keep the cash rolling. But there’s no easy explanation for the 21st-century-style counterculture growing up on East Robinson Street along the funky shopping strip across from the T.G. Lee Dairy. Say it’s coming from Tommy Mot’s camp, though, and there’s an immediate understanding and credibility. His Covert Skate Shop is ground zero for this enclave that also sports his new spin-off streetwear boutique, BETA Retail Gallery, which will be celebrated Oct. 11, with an art show and party (see page 29).

Also in the EastRo district is Katie Reynold’s Etoile Boutique, which just moved into the house tucked away in the behind-Covert parking lot and is creating a buzz of its own. Her enterprise carries independent-label and vintage fashions, and was voted Best Independent, Mostly Local Boutique in this paper’s 2007 Best of Orlando contest; Covert Skate Shop was also a BOO winner.

Mot’s an old scenester, and we mean that in the nicest way, even though he’s hovering at age 38. (His real name is Tommy Barger, but his DJ moniker took over years ago.) He doesn’t look a day over 25; girls and guys think he’s cute as hell, what with his curly brown hair and sweet disposition.

A lot of life has been packed into three-plus decades for the hometown kid (a Colonial High School grad), including a turn as a major-label DJ contender during the heat of the late ’90s reforming rave scene and a tour with Motley Crüe. But he’s always had one foot on a skateboard, starting from the days he was the cool guy behind the counter at Props downtown in the early 1990s. (“It was 10 years ahead of its time,” he says.) Mot continues to cut edges as co-owner of Covert, along with partner Will Durham, 30.

“I’m still just that kid,” says Mot, “learning as I go.”

He and his crew are getting a schooling all right, as they contour their growth plan to stay relevant in a changing industry and without compromising the integrity of the core skate shop. Thus, the slow opening over this year of Covert’s companion boutique, BETA, a partnership between Mot and Patrick McGinity, 29. Cue in on the words “skate shop” and “boutique” as they are key to the distributor exclusives – especially shoes – that are Mot’s ace in the cutthroat retail skate/streetwear/sneaker game.

“Sneaker culture has been funneling a lot of money through core shops,” says Mot. “I used to be a corporate hater, but Nike SB Dunks are saving us. Their game is so tight … and the shoes are comfortable, they are a good product. … I hate bad merchandise.”

The evidence is clear when you see teens stacked with cash in a line that stretches down the block after a new shipment of sneakers goes public. The kids gotta have it – the latest in labels: Nike SB, DC, DVS, Shut, Stussy.

The question for Mot is how to be successful without losing the soul of the business, which has several feeders: hardcore skaters, sneaker junkies, over 30-somethings who want to be cool, and their kids, too. Distributors such as Nike will only sell skate shoes in a core shop, so that’s why they opened the adjoining BETA. What can’t be sold in Covert can go in BETA to feed the brand frenzy for fashions that skaters as well as for upscaled urban stylists.

The demographic is a complicated equation and Mot’s years in the business and word-of-mouth support are what keeps him going, as well as his undeniable sense of what’s cool and what’s not. “What we have stands up to any major market in the world,” Mot says.

He prides himself on keeping Orlando current, with eyes and ears for keeping pace with what’s happening in big cities around the globe. At his regular Saturday-night DJ gig for Blackout at Club Firestone, Mot and friends (like frequent turntable partner Andrew Spear) bring on the latest in dance music. It’s music for those who grew up in the house scene and are ripe for sound updates.

The constant twists and turns in the sneaker market play to the human obsession of wanting what we can’t have. For instance, Nike “drops packages” once a month that have one-of-a-kind designs available only in a few sizes. And how about the shoes that never make it to the front of the shop; these reserves are saved for a worthy owner, someone who can appreciate what they are getting, Mot says. He’s not shy about feeling the power of the gatekeeper. Then there are the resale shops, like Culture Kings Orlando, which don’t have exclusive distributorships but employ guerilla tactics to score merchandise for markup in their shop and sought out by those who don’t mind paying more in exchange for eliminating the search mission.

Every day is a new day and needs a new way in this business, and while it’s tough, the challenge is part of the lure, both for clientele and proprietors. “We’ve never had investors and we have no debt,” Mot says. “We do it by all means necessary.” What is a skater if not anti?

In order to bring some attention to the Covert/BETA/Etoile shopping district on East Robinson Street, the head honchos are throwing an indoor-outdoor party Oct. 11. The centerpiece of the night is the opening of the Small Talk art exhibit, curated by Dustin Orlando, 32, a new guy in town from Miami, where he owned and operated Objex Art Space for five years. The graphic artist now puts his time into his Durty Clothes line ( of fashion and eventually plans to open a space here, similar to what he did down south.

For this show, Orlando invited 30 or so of the many artists he knows around the country (as well as a few entries from Canada and Europe) to create a new work, sized 12 inches-by-12 inches. He describes the art in general as the stuff of younger people, ages 18-35; the images that have been their source of reference, including fashions, logos, subcultures, graphic design, tattoos, comics and cartoons. “Since they were born until now, it’s all different kinds of stuff being generated by street artists and graffiti artists,” Orlando says.

There was no restraint put on the media, though most of the artists contributed paintings and aerosol paintings, along with drawings, stencils, screen printing and collage. And nothing in the exhibit will cost more than $500. Look for pieces by Bask, Tes-One, Daniel Hyun Lim, Chris Musina, Man-One, Pete Wollenger, Kev Grey and Mario Zucca.

Orlando is sure the art will stimulate conversation, thus the name, Small Talk. He and Tommy Mot also want to motivate artists of newer generations to be seen and heard in this community. The exhibit will continue on display in BETA until Nov. 11. Rain or shine, the parking lot behind Covert that joins with Etoile Boutique will be party central Thursday night with a tent covering DJ music and drink offerings.

(SMALL TALK, 7 p.m.-11 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11 2007; BETA Retail Gallery, 2432 E. Robinson St. (407) 228-1995.)


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