He says he's not a collector--an unexpected statement considering that Eric "Bird" Huffman's massive quonset hut is filled, from floor to ceiling, with over 1,400 surfboards. Stingers and Spoons, Noseriders and Firewires, Hot Curls and TOMOs--you name it, Bird's Surf Shed is packed to the rafters with it.
But his place is about more than just boards--customers discovered that when it first opened in 2011. What they found was a fully functioning retail store, event venue, de facto museum, shaping room, music loft, and a place to borrow and trade equipment. But The Shed is more than the sum of its parts. What really makes it unique is its aura, and while the source of this vibe might be hard to narrow down, it probably has a lot to do with what it's not. It's not a store staffed by intimidating "I-used-to-be-on-the-QS", High Fidelity-esque employees, or uber-hip "where's-your-skinny-jeans-dude?" fashionista bros. It's a low pressure, take your time, relaxed environment--a throwback to an earlier era, but without the stodginess. It's an establishment run by an extremely knowledgeable, hands-on owner--a business where contracts are negotiated over tacos and a handshake.
The more time you spend at Bird's, the more time you suspect providence at work. First the unavoidable, prolonged, neck-ache inducing act of staring at all the boards on the ceiling--pretty much the same thing people do at the Sistine Chapel. Then there's the life-imitating-art shape of the building itself--the middle of this arched quonset hut feels like your standing in an super-sized barrel, an expansive Pope's living room. And then there's the completion of the Holy Trinity: The Shed's union with the only other two surf businesses nearby--Joe Roper's Surfboard Repair and Skip Frye's shaping room. A strange little pocket of urban San Diego is now coated with salt-caked authenticity.
And that might allude to the only negative thing you can associate with the Shed--its location. Despite being on a major frontage road and in plain view, a tracker's instinct is required to negotiate the alley and side-street turns to actually park there. But in retrospect, even that seems appropriate because hunting it down draws on the same skill set needed to find secret, off-the-beaten-path surf spots.
Bird claims that The Shed is well received because he sells surfers "what they need, not what they want," which is a bold and refreshing approach to retail. No test marketing mandates or profit merchandising here--Bird knows from more than 20 years of surf shop experience that surfers can smell posers from a mile away, and can and will take their business elsewhere. Plus, as he points out, "people can find Ugg Boots and Nixon watches just about anywhere these days." He sums up his philosophy with a simple two-word mantra: "Boards first."
When you leave Bird's Surf Shed, it feels a bit like leaving the water after a good session. It has an afterglow: you feel a little more buoyant and reinvigorated and proud of the surfing life you chose. And in a fast-lane, hyperbolic world, that counts for a lot, because while corporate surf shops and action sports mall box stores are constantly shrinking their surfboard inventory, a man named Bird is proudly, and confidently, flying the other way.