Roller-skating specialty shop finds niche in Northeast Portland

Nicole Williams, aka, Bonnie Thunders, works in her Northeast Portland roller-skating specialty shop, Five Stride. (KATU Photo)

Roller-skating is something you probably haven’t thought about in years. Maybe you had a pair of skates when you were younger, or went to a birthday party at a roller rink. Recently, skating is making a bit of a comeback, and in several forms.

These days, skates for fun are available with brightly colored boots by a company called MOXI. If you’re into something sporty or want to take part in roller derby, you can find the low-slung speed skate style.

“The thing about roller-skating is that there’s a discipline for every person,” says Bonnie Thunders (her derby name).

She knows this not only as captain of Portland’s #2 team in the roller derby world, the “Wheels of Justice,” but also as a partner in a business dedicated to roller derby and skating.

Her real name is Nicole Williams, and she was a competitive ice skater from upstate New York. But her job in the nonprofit world and future in studying big cats was interrupted by a new love, roller derby.

“Everyone always jokes that roller derby will take over your life,” she says. “But it took over mine well beyond what I ever imagined.”

Back in 2010, Bonnie was living in New York City, and rising to the top in roller derby. She and another derby player saw a need for a specialty skate shop that would cater to derby players and casual skaters. They opened Five Stride Skate Shop in Brooklyn. Their goal was to be more than just equipment sales people.

“It’s about knowing the product better than anyone else, and being able to speak to all the different products, all the different brands,” she says. “And just be available resources to teach people how to maintain their skates, and figure out what’s going to be best for their skating.”

Portland has the largest roller derby league in the world, the Rose City Rollers, with over 500 members, from juniors to pros. There are a few other leagues in the area, too.

Because of the derby population here in Portland, last year, Bonnie and her partner packed up and moved from New York with the purpose of opening a second Five Stride location. They did that in Northeast Portland, and now divide their time between the two stores. Finding the best fit for someone and putting together custom skates is a big part of their business with fellow derby players. And the players appreciate that they have the resource.

“When I’ve skated with other leagues and I didn’t have access to this kind of knowledge, I’ve definitely had skates not fitted to me correctly and my ankle starts rolling,” says Rose City Wrecker, “Marzi Pain.” “And that’s like a really high risk of breaking your leg. So, I appreciate so much having someone around who helps me not get seriously injured.”

Fellow “Wrecker,” “Morgan Donor,” has been playing roller derby a little over a year. She says she struggled in the beginning with her wheels and borrowed skates. She went to Bonnie for some detailed help.

“When I got the new skates and the new gear, it was like, oh my gosh, I’m not as bad as I thought I was. It really makes a significant difference,” she says.

Beyond the derby world, Bonnie says that there are other opportunities for people to enjoy skating.

“If you are somebody who wants to just look more delicate on skates and just feel graceful, then you can go take dance skate classes at Oaks Park,” she says. “If you’re somebody who likes to dance to music, then you can take jam skating. And if you’re somebody who is more adventurous, then you can go skate in skate parks.”

But roller derby is also a sport that anyone can play. Many people who play say that they never thought they were athletic.

“Roller derby is really inclusive of all body types,” said Bonnie. And its popularity is growing as a recreational sport. “I think it’s just a positive environment that promotes healthy lifestyles.” (A starter set of skates to get into the sport will cost around $150.)

She’s hoping that more people will give skating a try in any of its forms. And as the community grows, Bonnie, of course, hopes her business will grow. Regardless, she’s busy whether she’s in the shop or on the track. “What it’s all about for me is just doing something that I really enjoy and makes me happy.”

Laughing, she adds, “Even though it’s incredibly stressful, and maybe doesn’t pay very well.”

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