Stab Magazine | The Way It Was (A very brief history of surf shops)

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The Way It Was (A very brief history of surf shops)

Words by Jake Howard Ocean Beach, San Francisco, 1952. The Beach is the badlands, no man’s land. Winos drink in the dunes and the Sunset’s a work in progress. From 19th Avenue west to the Great Highway, it’s sand, wind, fog and a cold, unwelcoming ocean. The grand old city by the bay is quiet, […]

style // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Words by Jake Howard

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, 1952. The Beach is the badlands, no man’s land. Winos drink in the dunes and the Sunset’s a work in progress. From 19th Avenue west to the Great Highway, it’s sand, wind, fog and a cold, unwelcoming ocean. The grand old city by the bay is quiet, still emerging from the post-War haze. A seismic generational shift has yet to take place. Jack Kerouac has just made his first foray west. On The Road is five years from being published. Chinatown’s still like stepping straight into the orient. The docks are run by gruff longshoreman and pirates. The Castro’s still straight. Nobody’s heard the word ‘hippy’ yet. And it is here where the story of the surf shop as we know it today begins.

An industrious young lad by the name of Jack O’Neill decides Ocean Beach, not Malibu or Waikiki where people actually surf, is the ideal spot to launch an industry. He sells some big, bulky balsa boards and this new freaky swimwear he calls a ‘wetsuit.’ Jack not only opens the door for aquatic insulation, but also provides a business model for others to follow.

By ’54 the action picks up down south. Nancy Katin and Hobie Alter open shops in Surfside and Dana Point, respectively. Katin makes killer boardshorts and Hobie’s got foam and fibreglass sleds wired thanks to an earnest friendship with pal Grubby Clark. Meanwhile, in the real world, the year brings the US Supreme Court’s historic decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in schools. The polio vaccine is administered for the first time. William Faulkner wins the Pulitzer for A Fable. Jack Kerouac finds Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible at the San Jose Library and will come to write Dharma Bums because of it. All told, it was a good year.

Dive N’ Surf opens in Hermosa in ’56 and Jack’s Surfboards opens in Huntington in ’57. Martin Luther King Jr. marches in Alabama, the ‘Little Rock Nine’ stand up to the man in Arkansas and the Ruskies launch Sputnik. The Space Age is upon us while the US Military lets loose the first H-bomb over Bikini Atoll. On The Road finally hits shelves and Kerouac’s buddy Allen Ginsberg publishes Howl. The world will never be the same.

After the first few shops broke ground a slew of others popped up on the East and West Coasts in the early ’60s. And like that we were off and running. Heady times, those early days. Given the turbulence of the era it’s amazing this funny surfing thing ever made it. But truth be told, that may be when the sport was at its best. Surfers were outcasts, but in a good way, a way that hadn’t been corrupted by American commercialisation or drug use. The early scallywags were a tribe before calling it a tribe was the dorkiest thing you could do. They went to the beach and didn’t know what period or angle the swell was coming from. And if it was shitty they swigged wine from a jug. They hopped Matson liners to exotic islands. It was before Wi-Fi and hip ruined everything.

This February the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) will recognise 20 surf shops that have been in business for 50 years or more at their annual image awards in craptacular Anaheim. Think about that for a second: Surf shops hitting the half-century mark. Who would have thought O’Neill’s wild hair would have led to all this. A lot’s happened in that time, but two things remain constant: core surf shops are still damn cool and On The Road is still a hell of a book.

America’s Oldest Operating Surf Shops:

O’Neill Surf Shop San Francisco, Calif. 1952
Hobie Dana Point, Calif. 1954
Katin Huntington Beach, Calif. 1954
Dive N’ Surf Redondo Beach, Calif. 1956
Jack’s Surfboards Huntington Beach, Calif. 1957
Ron Jon’s Shipbottom, N.J. 1961
Hansen Surfboards Cardiff, Calif. 1961
Harbour Surfboards Seal Beach, Calif. 1962
Froghouse Newport Beach, Calif. 1962
Bunger Surf Copaigue, N.Y. 1962
Surfers Supplies Ocean City, N.J. 1962
Val Surf North Hollywood, Calif. 1962
Surf ‘n Wear’s Beach House Summerland, Calif. 1963
Atlantic Beach Surf Shop Atlantic Beach, N.C. 1964
Heritage Surf Shop Sea Isle City, N.J. 1964
West Coast Surf Shop Holmes Beach, Fla. 1964
Bert’s Surf Shop Kinston, N.C. 1965
Haut Surfboards Santa Cruz, Calif. 1965
McKevlin’s Surf Shop Folly Beach, S.C. 1965
Surf n Sea Haleiwa, HI 1965


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