Behind the cash register at Happy Battle Surf Co., there’s an ’80s boombox that sits on a cluttered shelf surrounded by stacks of cassette tapes and single fins in just about every size and color. Gorgeous logs and fish designs line the walls of the San Diego-based surf shop, all hand-shaped with rails begging to be fondled. Owner Mark Polintan juggles flipping the tapes, side-hustle accounting jobs and greeting each costumer with a smile. There’s more to this shop than boards for sale—and that’s by Polintan’s design.
As a grom growing up in the Philippines, Polintan surfed on a single surfboard he’d share with his friends–a board a traveling pro left behind. When it wasn’t his day to ride the village board, he’d get industrious and make paipo look-a-likes out of duct tape and Styrofoam. His experiences as a grom helped Polintan gain a reverence for local surf communities and handmade craft–two principles he founded Happy Battle on.
At the age of 18, Polintan’s family immigrated to New York City. “I woke up one morning and my mom handed me my Social Security card,” Polintan recalls. “My dad told me that it was my license to work and that I start at Dunkin Donuts the next day. I told him that I didn’t even know English. He said, ‘Don’t worry, you know what glazed donuts look like don’t you? You’re good to go.’” Polintan’s dad was right. Between working two jobs and scoring sessions at Rockaway Beach, Polintan not only learned English, but also earned a college degree in accounting.
Polintan always viewed San Diego as a surfing mecca, and eventually made his way out west with his wife. Looking for work, he started contacting local shapers for accounting jobs. “A shaper told me he sold a lot of boards and made a lot of money the previous year,” Polintan said. “I said, ‘Oh yeah? Let me see your books.’ I looked at all his expenses, time it takes to shape a board, glassing and the whole process. I broke down how much he was making an hour. When I showed him his bottom line, it turned out he was barely breaking even. He had a lot of boards sitting in his shop, some for six months. I told him that his inventory was money that wasn’t moving.”
That shaper asked Polintan to help him sell the excess boards. Soon, more shapers were asking for Polintan’s help. It was never Polintan’s intention to open a surf shop, but before long he found himself with an inventory for one.
Being an accountant, Polintan knew exactly what his rent budget would need to be in order to keep a small surf shop afloat. Coastal zones are ideal locations for hocking boards, but beachside retail spaces were too expensive for Polintan’s budget. Eventually he saw a “For Rent” sign in a storefront about a dozen or so miles inland on San Diego’s infamous El Cajon Blvd–an unconventional spot for a surf shop, but one he could afford. Even “America’s Finest City” has a seedy underbelly, and Happy Battle unintentionally found itself in an area of town that many would expect to sooner find sex workers and drug dealers than surfers.
“When I first opened Happy Battle,” Polintan said. “Two guys walked in wearing hoodies. I said, ‘hello’ but they didn’t even look at me. They talked to each other for a little bit and I saw them do a quick exchange with their hands. Then they walked out the door. I was like, ‘What the heck just happened?’ I’m pretty sure it was a drug deal.”
Even though Happy Battle isn’t situated in a typical surf zone, Polintan is still able to draw in a tight-knit community of shapers who build boards by hand and surfers who appreciate their craft. For Polintan, a fringe benefit of working with local board builders is the schooling of San Diego surf culture he continues to get. “Some of these legendary shapers are retired and some are still shaping,” Polintan said. “You can knock on their doors and still talk to them. You can pick their brains and learn. Like if I go pick up some boards, I might run into Skip Frye, Hank Warner or Stu Kenson. The surf culture is so rich here, and if you want to take the time to learn it, a lot of these guys will share it with you.”
Just as Polintan passed around that lone board amongst his local surf community in the Philippines years ago, he uses Happy Battle as a vehicle to, in his words, “push the culture forward.” Happy Battle does this by not only stocking boards from local legends such as Hank Byzak, Jay Novak, Larry Mabile, John Holly and more, but also boards built by up-and-coming shapers, like Reid Lingenfelter and Nick Melanson, who are dedicated to learning the craft. Boards shaped by established craftsmen like Tyler Warren and Wes Holderman line the walls too. There’s a courtyard behind the shop where surf films are premiered, bands rock out and artists exhibit–events curated and produced by Polintan in order to nurture a sense of community. If only one surfboard existed amongst those who attend Happy Battle’s parties, it would probably be shared liberally. That’s the type of culture Happy Battle fosters.
Visit Happy Battle in the physical world at 4958 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115 and visit in the digital world by clicking here.
To stay up to date on all of Happy Battle’s events, boards and musings follow on Instagram; @happybattlesurfco.