With Retro Milpitas right around the corner, The Milpitas Beat got on the phone with Chris St. Germain – the longtime co-owner of Cal Skate and the daughter of its original founders Ernie and Evelyn St. Germain – for an exclusive interview. Chris, who now lives in Henderson, Nevada, ran the business with her brother Trace and their dad till it closed in 2011.
Cal Skate burns bright in Milpitas’s collective memory. Even years after they shut their doors, they still maintain a robust Facebook page. To many, the business represents a lost time, one of joy, innocence, and simple togetherness.
They opened their doors in 1977. Ernie, Evelyn, and Chris moved here from Sacramento; Trace was off serving in the army. Ernie had worked for many years in broadcasting, but he and Evelyn wanted to start a business, so they got involved with a pool of developers that was building skating rinks around California.
“My dad was a skater,” Chris explains. “My dad used to take me skating as a kid. I’ve been a skater since I was around four.”
It was when Chris got into competitive skating that her parents met the pros they partnered up with. But when Ernie and Evelyn first started managing Cal Skate, they knew nothing whatsoever about skating rinks. However, Evelyn was a proven host and entertainer, and the St. Germains were determined to find their way…
“I was 15 when we opened up the doors,” Chris shares. “I just remember my mom and dad being very conservative with the retail side of the business…My parents were just really smart and made really good business decisions.”
They noticed that at the start of each school year, business tended to get really slow. Families were tied up with the transition and less focused on entertainment. That’s when Ernie (Chris is pretty sure) came up with the idea of giving free passes to all different local schools – elementary and middle schools. With district approval, they delivered printed passes to schools from Milpitas to Berryessa to Alum Rock, Sunnyvale, and Fremont. The passes allowed kids to skate for free in two-week brackets. Bringing new skaters in the door for free meant they’d be inclined to spend their money at the snack bar and on arcade games. Kids who’d never even thought of skating took advantage. They’d make new friends – even ones from other school districts.
“It was a huge social interaction,” Chris recalls. “And it was really just bringing the community together.”
Chris wasn’t there for many of the early years, though: “I wanted to learn about the big wide world out there.” She went up to the Pacific Northwest to begin pursuing what would become a four-decade career as an accountant.
While she was gone, her brother Trace had an injury in the army that almost took his legs. “He ended up retiring from the army and came back to Milpitas.” But it was his first time living in Milpitas; he’d last been with his parents while they were up in Sac.
Trace had been in the service for 5 years, and now needed to move in a new direction. While he weighed his options, he had several surgeries. “He’s very handy,” says Chris, “so dad would put him to work in the rink, fixing things and doing things.”
This was in the early 1980s. Before long, Trace found his way into the Cal Skate operation. He started working there as a manager. Chris describes him as patient, even-keeled, and very good with people. “He also became very proficient with mounting skates.” Since Cal Skate also sold higher-end equipment to competitive skaters, Trace was able to step up and fulfill that need.
Things stayed that way for about a decade, with Chris out of state and Trace running the skating business with Ernie and Evelyn. But in 1992, the paradigm shifted: Evelyn passed away suddenly from a heart attack. She was 58 years old.
“It was a big hit to the family,” Chris shares. “She was the cornerstone.”
It wasn’t long before Trace and Ernie started summoning Chris down from Seattle to “fill Mom’s shoes.” Chris told them, “That’s gonna be a tough thing.” She had, however, learned a lot from being by her mom’s side in those early years.
Still: “It took me some time to make the decision; I think it was around eight months.”
Chris moved home in 1994.
At the time, her dad still had a partner in the business. Chris and the partner clashed, as she wanted to spend money on growing and enhancing the operation. For starters, they really needed a website!
Chris set a clear goal of making a million dollars. The next year, they grossed exactly that. At that time, they bought the partner out and became a pure family business. “From there,” Chris says, “we just skyrocketed.”
They made interior improvements. They shined like lightning.
When Ernie retired, he told his kids he trusted their judgment when it came to Cal Skate’s future. Chris and Trace kept it going till July 31, 2011, only two months after Ernie’s passing. Chris says it’s probably a good thing that their dad wasn’t there to see Cal Skate’s end, as it would have been too hard on him.
As for the siblings: “My brother and I were getting really tired. It’s a 24/7 job. We felt that we had done what we wanted to do. And we needed to make decisions for the rest of our lives…”
Thinking back on Cal Skate’s glory days, Chris becomes audibly emotional: “We were a huge melting pot. There was young and old and gay and straight and black and white and yellow and red. And we were just all skaters. Nobody was anything other than that.”
Learn more about Cal Skate here.