Tom Mellott leans his board over the edge of the quarter pipe and propels it down the ramp, where it crashes. Undaunted, he kick-flips the board, gives its new competition wheels a spin, then tries the same trick. Again the board flips out of control.
"It's like skateboarding -- without the injuries," says Tom. Examining a tiny scrape on his index finger after yet another crash, the 13-year-old offhandedly amends his statement: "Well, maybe not totally without injuries."
Tom showed up one recent Sunday afternoon at Zany Brainy in the Fairfax Towne Center for the chain toy store's promotional "bonanza" featuring what's being touted by toy industry touters as the newest and gnarliest craze heading this way from ever-trendy California.
Dude! Pack up Pokemon, bury the Crazy Bones, yank the yo-yos! Fingerboards we're talking now! Fingerboards are miniature skateboards that in their latest designs are nearly scale models of the real thing -- only, instead of your feet, you let your fingers do the skating. From Orange County, Calif., to Philadelphia, in Chicago, even in Des Moines, jumping, kick-flipping and doing grinds on these three-inch skateboards already has become the rage among 8-to-14-year-olds, most of them boys -- many of whom have never set foot on an actual skateboard or wrote them off as too treacherous. Sales also are up in New York and elsewhere as a wave of adolescent word of mouth sweeps eastward.
Can it happen here? Let's just say you could count on the fingers of one hand the kids who came to Zany Brainy's Sunday fingerboard bonanza. It was nowhere close to the hundred-odd people who showed up the previous Friday night to play and trade Crazy Bones, the popular collectible bone-shaped plastic creatures.
But elementary school insiders report increased sightings of fingerboards doing ollies across textbooks and skittering over desk tops. Ditto from area toy stores: Joe Guevara, a salesman at Sullivan's Toy Store on Wisconsin Avenue NW, says fingerboard sales "have picked up in recent weeks -- but I hear they're huge in California."
Tom bought his first fingerboard in late May. He's on his third now. The others broke. He customized this one using the $8.99 "Official Finger Board" kit that includes the basic plastic board, a spare set of oversize competition wheels, a metal screwdriver/wrench tool with a neck-cord attachment, an extra set of training wheels and trucks, and black grip tape abrasive enough to file fingernails.
But fingerboards haven't yet soared at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, where Tom's a student. "Not that I know of," he shrugs.
Launching hers through a cardboard tube at Zany Brainy, 11-year-old Angela Hart says the harder tricks mimicking real skateboard stunts require practice. She points out the artwork -- a long-legged girl with a halo -- on the $8.99 fingerboard she bought minutes earlier.
It's not likely to replace her 130 Beanie Babies or her complete collection of Crazy Bones, Angela says, but she likes these fingerboards. She recently started seeing a few at Virginia Run Elementary, where she goes to school in Fairfax, and believes they might get hot this summer -- when kids trade and play with the small, easily portable toys in after-school summer programs and camps. "Crazy Bones became popular. Pokemon became popular. This could, too," she says.
Predicting that the full-blown craze seems to be following the Crazy Bones trend by about three months in this area, Lisa Orman, Zany Brainy publicist at the toy retailer's Philadelphia headquarters, says, "They have been selling well -- but in pockets as it catches on. Once kids start showing up in schools and showing their friends, they sell like wildfire."
The Zany Brainy chain started selling the "official Fingerboards" brand in its Orange County and Los Angeles stores in March, and soon after, distributed the product to all 80 stores nationwide. "They really did take off," says Orman, adding that a major factor fueling the trend is their low cost ($3.99-$9.99, with accessories extra), which keeps them within reach of kids using their own money. "Fingerboards," she says, "are going to be a hot, big trend."
Others think so, too. The mounting merchandising war already led to a lawsuit (filed earlier this year in California involving four manufacturers) that aims to resolve whether the term "Fingerboards" is a registered trademark or a generic term for the product. Charges of "unfair business practices" resound along with the "annoying noise," as one mother put it, that fingerboards make when rolled repeatedly across tabletops.
"It became big, other companies got into the action, and then it became complicated," says Mark Dinges, co-owner of California Creations, the Brea, Calif.-based company marketing the original Fingerboards. The company got its start in 1987 selling small, novelty key-ring skateboards that have now evolved into the skateable scale models.
"They created a key-chain skateboard and kids took the metal key-chain part off and started fingerboarding," explains Dinges, whose firm was a major marketer of Pogs during the milk-bottle cap fad. "Fingerboards have really been around forever in the industry, but it just never hit mainstream before now. . . . And any time there is something popular, there are people going to copy it -- or even improve the concept."
That's what Tom Davidson says his company has done. The Escondido, Calif.-based X-Concepts started shipping its slightly pricier Tech Deck miniature skateboards last November to retailers that now include Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Kmart and Kay Bee Toys. Since then, the company has sold nearly 8 million, he says.
"The reason we've sold well, real simply, is that we made a realistic miniature skateboard," says Davidson, describing the die-cast metal trucks and axles that kids can take apart, the adjustable kingpin and rubber bushings and interchangeable wheels. "This is a toy, but it's not a toy. We're about skateboarding."
But Tech Deck's biggest selling point is art -- the more than 200 animated graphic designs it purchased the rights to reproduce from the top professional skateboard manufacturers such as Black Label, World Industries and Zero. Recently Tony Hawks, probably the best-known professional skateboarder in the world, lent Tech Deck his name on its new line of miniature skateboard accessories.
"The kids like to buy the replica of the real thing," says Davidson, who credits his 12-year-old son, Steven, with creating the cardboard prototype last year and then writing a report that became X-Concepts' business plan for the product. "I asked him, `Is this something we could sell?' And he said, `If you make it real.'
"There are a lot of miniature skateboards out there whose art doesn't mean anything. . . . Quite frankly we are the hottest thing out there."
Just how hot miniature skateboards will get is anyone's guess, however. The same age group embraced Pogs big time a few years back and then they disappeared. All toy manufacturers covet the staying power of Beanie Babies. "Nobody ever knows in these things what's going to happen," says Dinges.
"The beauty of miniature skateboarding," says Davidson, "is it's really something any person can do. It's all fantasy play."
As one adolescent Californian and inveterate fingerboarder explained on his "Unofficial Fingerboard Museum" Web site: "When I popped my first ollie, I was in love. . . . Today my hand skates as well as any pro skater around."
CAPTION: Tom Mellot, 13, parks a fingerboard on his nose at Zany Brainy in Fairfax Towne Center.
CAPTION: Angela Hart, 11, says fingerboards may soon take off.