Running The Asylum

A History of TSA

Above: TSA Presents, ABSINTHE Dopamine Premiere.

In the summer of 1996 I jumped on a train to Manchester and made the pilgrimage to The Snowboard Asylum in Castlefield. I was 17 at the time, completely obsessed with snowboarding, and the chance to while away an August afternoon drooling over gear – maybe even buy a t-shirt or hat and reaffirm my identity as a rider – was not to be missed.

“The story of TSA begins, like a typical British winter, at the Earl’s Court Ski Show”

I followed the directions I’d memorised (no Google Maps back then) and found the quiet backstreet on which Ellis Brighams – the ski shop – was located. Down in the basement, like a teenager’s hangout, was TSA. The floorspace was bursting with gear from all my favourite American brands. To a kid who nerded out on mags and videos, who hadn’t yet saved enough cash for his own board, it was like stumbling into aladdin’s cave.

And right there, behind the desk, was my hero Steve Bailey: the undisputed king of dryslope and hands down the coolest rider in the country. He looked up as I entered and invited me over to join him watching a new VHS release, Subjekt Haakonsen. Erm, sure.

TSA Staff at the boardtest in 2008

Little did I know, as I nervously hung out with Steve at the counter like Wayne and Garth backstage with Alice Cooper (“We’re not worthy!”) but a few years later I would land a job in this very shop, saving money for my third season. In fact I’d make lifelong friends there amongst the staff – a mix of talented riders, artists and straight-up characters – and mix with customers from all walks of life, united by their love of the shred. It’s no exaggeration to say TSA played a key role in setting me on my current path through life.

That experience, says head honcho Jeremy Sladen, is exactly what The Snowboard Asylum is about. For more than 30 years now, its chain of stores has represented not just a place to purchase kit but a touchstone for the UK snowboarding community.

Big Bang, Jenny Jones Coaching

The story of TSA begins, like a typical British winter, at the Earl’s Court Ski Show. It was 1989, and Sladen – a dirtbag graduate of the dryslope scene now hawking boards for Sims – had persuaded the owners of the UK’s oldest and most respected alpine ski shop to let him try selling a few from the side of their stand. During the 10 day show, he sold six or seven snowboards; a modest start, sure, but proof that there was a nascent market out there.

“Being part of the scene – driving it, even – was as much the goal as selling snowboards”

Soon after, Bob and Ellis Brigham committed to creating a space for snowboarding in their proper stores, starting with Covent Garden in London and Castlefield in Manchester. Like the ski show operation, it needed to be separated from the race skis and climbing jackets. It needed to feel legit.

“We wanted to give it that look and feel,” says Bob’s son Rob, now Managing Director. “It could be our own thing.”

The fledgling shop initially planned to take its name from The Snowboard Academy in Aviemore, but a planned tie-in went south and they were forced to scramble for a new moniker, having already produced a bunch of marketing around the acronym ‘TSA’. Someone suggested ‘The Snowboard Asylum’ and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was a fitting description, too. At the time, snowboarders were still viewed as crazy outcasts by many in the traditional ski community – which begs the question: wasn’t it an uphill struggle to win support from Britain’s OG ski shop?

“This is the one thing that impressed me most about the whole thing,” says Jez. “Before I worked there, I would go in and sit with Bob and Ellis in their office and drink tea for hours on end, before they were even buying snowboards off me. They really understood what snowboarding was, because they were involved with the grassroots of alpine skiing back when it first hit Britain. They could see the similarities between the two. Like, when it snowed, the snowboarders would go up to the Peak District. That was what skiing was like when they first experienced it. They saw that, but they also understood they needed to bring the right people in to run it.”

32 Team Visit Tamworth

From the start, the idea was to stay true to snowboarding’s counter-culture roots. The 90s years, recall Jez, were “fucking brilliant. It was just a bit loose.” There were trips to Board X, The Brits, and plenty of TSA-sponsored parties. The guys developed a reputation for booking great music; Simon from Bonobo DJ’d at one event, and their infamous Hacienda bash featured a line-up worthy of the Glasto dance tent. Being part of the scene – driving it, even – was as much the goal as selling snowboards.

“I left a really well paid job to sleep in the back of a Citroen for three years because I loved snowboarding and I wanted to be involved”

“We wanted to retain that ethos of what snowboarding was – and still is to me – but bring a level of professionalism and customer service,” explains Jez. “Everybody aspires to something. Nobody really aspires to the mainstream; they aspire to be part of something. So creating this brand and family around TSA, that riders and consumers could be part of, was what I wanted to bring to this. To build a community around the sport.”

That open and inclusive atmosphere was in contrast to some of the other core stores at the time. Across town in Manchester, the dungeon-like Split Skates was the only other place to buy a snowboard – if you were cool enough. They did, however, boast local legends Chris Moran and Steve Bailey as staff. Both were enticed to join TSA instead, becoming the first of a who’s who of UK riders to have operated the tills in their time. Jenny Jones once worked in the Bristol branch; James Stentiford worked at Tamworth; Jamie Nicholls did his work experience at the Castleford XScape store; the list goes on. When the dome scene blew up in the early noughties, the stores there were crewed by the same people pushing the park set-ups and organising events, while plenty of current media folk served their apprenticeship on the shop floor, including Looking Sideways podcaster Matt Barr (“he was pestering us for a cup of tea every five minutes at the ski show stand”) and various WL editors including Andrew Duthie, Rob McCreath, Joy Dutch and yours truly.

TSA Presents, ABSINTHE Dopamine Premiere.

“I’ve always wanted to develop the guys that work in the shop, because they’re not going to stay with you forever,” says Jez. “I think it’s really good that a lot of them go on to do other things in the snowboard industry. It comes back to this family ethos. Hopefully we give them the tools to do that – it’s a really important part of what we’ve done over the years.”

Whatever your background or ambitions, a central lesson every TSA staff member learns is respect for the customer. “With the riders, I always had this idea that if someone’s getting free kit then they need to have an understanding of why,” argues Jez. “They need to talk to the people who are in real terms paying for their new kit. It was a two-way street. It gave the riders money to go away and do seasons, and it gave us credibility. But more importantly, it introduced them to the consumer and stopped them being aloof arseholes.”

Forum Team in Covent Garden

Not that anyone could stop customers from occasionally being starstruck. “We used to have the Steve Bailey-ometer,” recalls Jez. “It was a swing tag and it went from ‘OH MY GOD IT’S STEVE BAILEY!’ to ‘WHO?’”

“Why do you have a snowboard shop if you’re not gonna get involved in the progression of the sport and champion this new technology?”

As TSA entered the millennium, they continued to host events around the country and provide support to local movie projects including the Broken Thumbs Tour and the Gendle/Warwood series of Lockdown films – the latter providing an annual excuse to throw a lavish premiere in Tamworth. To their credit, the Brigham brothers just let them get on with it.

TSA Sponsors Brits

“We were market leaders in terms of the volume we were selling. It was almost our duty to promote snowboarding as a whole and everything around it, rather than just sit back and take the money,” says Jez. “Having that mindset was really important: it wasn’t about taking, it was about putting back into it as well. I left a really well paid job to sleep in the back of a Citroen for three years because I loved snowboarding and I wanted to be involved.”

“We were doing it for the love of it, and the industry was fun,” agrees Rob. “We were selling that dream. There’s no fun in just standing in a shop shifting units. There was a party scene attached and we could share it with the people who enjoyed it. There was never any question of not doing that. This is what snowboarding is.”

That same sense of fun led TSA to pioneer many rider-driven brands over the years. Companies like Signal, Dinosaurs Will Die, Slash, YES and Jones all benefited from large early orders and a willingness to sell their story to the customer. It would have been simpler to stick to flogging the usual well-known boards but, argues Jez, “That’s been the demise of the snowboard store. It goes back to this ethos that people don’t aspire to the mainstream. If you don’t move forward, you get bored. It’s a piece of piss to repeat the same orders every year but that’s really boring. Why do you have a snowboard shop if you’re not gonna get involved in the progression of the sport and champion this new technology? That’s the driver for progression. If you ignore it and just place the same Burton and Salomon and K2 orders every winter then you’re probably in the wrong business.”

Taking on new brands also gave Jeremy and the gang the opportunity to meet their heroes, he admits. “It was nothing more than being able to go, ‘Ooh, I just bought these boards off Dave Lee!’ or, ‘Oh look it’s Shawn Farmer and Rocket Reeves! Let’s do a tour with those guys!’

Glencoe Demo

To riders in the UK, international pros can often seem like far-off gods, but by using its privileged position with industry leaders the shop was able to bring these legends a little closer to the rest of us. You might even say the TSA crew are the ultimate fanboys.

“If you wanna buy a board to look cool, go to someone else’s store; our job’s to sell you the equipment that will make you a better rider”

“It wasn’t a conscious marketing thing,” says Jez. “It was always just ‘This’ll be rad! Let’s get this guy over and go snowboarding at the snowdome,’ or “let’s get this guy on the stand at the ski show.’ We kinda did it for our own personal enjoyment. We were equally stoked to be involved with those people. The appeal was looking at new tech and getting in at the ground floor, seeing where the sport was gonna go, and not waiting for someone else to do all the work.”

That approach helps explain TSA’s strong support for NOW bindings and Bataleon, both of which combine innovative design with strong personalities (“Danny Kiebert came over to do a presentation, and half of it consisted of him going through his family tree to trace his lineage back to Osama Bin Laden. Haha!”). But while Jez (as the main buyer) is happy to pioneer new tech, he needs to be convinced by the science – something reverse camber failed to do, which is why he stayed off the Skate Banana bandwagon.

Big Bang, Castleford Snozone

Likewise, at the height of Nicolas Müller and Heikki Sorsa’s popularity it would have been easy to sell a Burton Custom to almost every customer that requested one, but “It’s never been about selling the most expensive things, it’s about selling the right equipment – the product that’s right for them, that’s gonna grow their snowboarding. I’m not interested in people’s vanity projects. If you wanna buy a board to look cool, go to someone else’s store; our job’s to sell you the equipment that will make you a better rider.”

“These days, an increasing number of those customers are coming to the TSA online, where it’s hard to replicate that level of service”

Chris Shannon, TSA’s Marketing Manager, agrees: “By being honest you’re probably getting a customer for life, rather than trashing their first experience of snowboarding.”

These days, an increasing number of those customers are coming to the TSA online, where it’s hard to replicate that level of service. The team’s solution is to put a lot of effort into producing in-depth product descriptions and exhaustive video reviews. Things have certainly come a long way since they built the first primitive website.

“It lived on a server that was a box in the middle of the room in Wellington Mill where the website was designed,” recalls Rob. “It was about the size of a couple of drawers, and it was on wheels. I was in the office next door looking at the website and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Shit, it’s gone down! The website’s gone!’ I went running in telling the guys and they were like, ‘We know! We know! We dunno what the fuck’s happened!’ Everyone’s thinking we need to do something clever – ‘HTTP slash slash’ – and try to diagnose it. At that point a cleaner left the room and was like ‘See you tomorrow lads!’ We were like, ‘Ah it’s much better now that hoover noise has stopped.’ And then it dawned on us: she’d unplugged the internet.”

The Wagon

Like many companies, the TSA found Covid accelerated its online business. In lockdown, even while people couldn’t ride they were still ordering boards from the website – spending that season train ticket money while working from home. With so much more choice online, and prices (and margins) driven constantly lower, it’s tempting to wonder if there’s much of a future for physical shops?

“Coming out of Covid, you realise the importance of the store as that community hub, that touchpoint for everything.”

“Bricks and mortar will always be important to what we do,” argues Shannnon. “Coming out of Covid, you realise the importance of the store as that community hub, that touchpoint for everything.”

2009 TSA Board Wall

Indeed. While our media consumption has changed a lot since the 90s, and snowboarders aren’t the “scum of the earth” they used to be (a badge Jez still wears with pride), the buzz of connecting with fellow riders – maybe even one you follow on instagram – hasn’t changed since I bought a Sessions cap off Steve Bailey all those moons ago.

“People still get really stoked coming into the store,” says Shannon, “especially early in the season and seeing that board wall. It’s like a gallery. The sales people have all actually ridden them, so they can really describe what they’re like, and it’s really hard to emulate that advice digitally. Their enthusiasm is infectious.”

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