For 55 years, Willie Trent, owner of the Empire Roller Rink, held the door for people coming to skate.
Children wobbled on their skates like newborn fawns learning to stand. Families held hands while they lapped the rink to a soundtrack of pop music.
But after 80 years, 55 of which were under Trent’s command, the Empire Roller Rink is closing.
Community members have expressed their disappointment since the announcement of the closure. Past and present Columbia residents alike have taken to social media to share memories of the rink. In a Facebook group, people have posted memories of Trent and his family’s business.
“I remember it was a really open place where we could go in and just practice,” Andrea Waner, a current volunteer and former member of the CoMo Derby Danes, a roller derby team based in Columbia, said.
Waner and other members of the team expressed gratitude for the consistency Empire showed in allowing the team to use its space, and the welcoming atmosphere that was always waiting for them. The team started 13 years ago and has been involved with Empire ever since.
“All the people working there are excited to see us,” Jessica Hawk, another derby team member, said.
Trent decided to sell the rink to Show-Me Central Habitat for Humanity, Columbia’s Habitat affiliate. The organization plans to open a retail space called Restore, which will sell inexpensive household and construction supplies.
Trent’s decision to sell the rink was not sudden. He worked on the sale for about 10 years.
After talking to his children about taking over the family business, he realized operating a skating rink wasn’t the path for his children to follow. For the next 10 years, he searched for a buyer who would be willing to use the space as a roller rink in order to maintain its original integrity. Unsuccessful, he decided on Habitat for Humanity as a buyer.
Trent’s parents opened Empire Roller Rink in December 1938. Trent was born in 1943, and spent his childhood always in close proximity to the rink; his family lived in an apartment above Empire.
“I was born, and then they took me straight to the roller rink,” Trent said. “I was raised right there at the skating rink.”
By the age of 4, his father had taught Trent to skate.
“I cannot remember a time in my entire life that I could not skate,” Trent said.
Trent took over as the sole owner of the rink in 1963 after his mother died. Taking over the rink, for him, was a given.
Since he took over, Trent worked to inspire a community passion for roller skating.
“I do remember the funkiness of the place and for some reason why those types of places are far more fun than the more sterilized ones,” Ken Terry said. Terry attended Hickman High School and is a current resident of Columbia.
Empire hosted birthday parties, pizza nights and even a wedding. It also held open-skate time. MU sororities and fraternities hosted chapter events there.
“(The rink) has affected, in one way or another, many many families and kids in Columbia,” Trent said.
Trent said he enjoys watching children try to skate for the first time.
“Skating is about children, anyway,” Trent said. “All of a sudden, a little light bulb comes on, and they can roll, and they can move. And then they get better.”
Trent said he believes he and his family have had a positive impact on the Columbia community for the past 80 years and thinks Habitat will continue that impact with community-driven work.
The departure from Empire does not come without some emotion for Trent. Although he said he looks forward to spending time with family and having time to read, he knows that closing the rink will leave a hole in the Columbia community.
“I’m sad in the fact that roller skating will not be available in Columbia,” Trent said.
Community members echoed Trent’s sadness when they first found out about the closure.
“I was devastated,” Hawk said. “It’s kind of like the end of an era.”
Some were disappointed they couldn’t pass along their skating traditions to later generations.
“I was really bummed. I have a three year old, I was really looking forward to having them pick out skates with orange wheels,” Waner said.
Members of the Columbia community have flocked to the Empire Roller Rink to soak up its atmosphere during its last week of operation. Over a hundred people crowded the floor for open skate sessions during the week. A steady line of people propped the front door open as kids, families and more experienced skaters waited to get inside.
Trent manned the DJ booth, rented out skates and mingled with skaters around the rink.
“The last week has been insane,” Trent said.
Multiple people expressed nostalgia and sadness to Trent after he announced the closure.
“There has been more tears shed at this building since last Friday than at some funerals, probably,” Trent said with a laugh. “I’ve had at least half a dozen kids ask their parents to buy the place.”
Supervising editor is Kaleigh Feldkamp.