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History of Surfing: Houses of the Holy

The evolution of the '60s-boom surf shop, from Matt Warshaw

Hobie Alter’s Dana Point compound. Dale Velzy’s Manhattan Beach showroom. Larry Gordon and Floyd Smith’s San Diego storefront. Jack O’Neill’s San Francisco shack. In the 1950s, California’s first surf shops had personalities as varied as the shapers who owned them. The ’60s boom reenforced the surf shop’s value in its roles as industry space and social hub, explained by Matt Warshaw in his newest History of Surfing chapter. And though much about the surf shop look had changed to adjust to a skyrocketing client base, many of its cultural functions remained the same. More from Matt:

The late-’50s surf shop was an exercise in minimalism: a wood countertop and a few boards in a bare-walled "showroom" attached to a fumy garage-sized workspace stocked with a drum of resin, a roll of fiberglass, some cardboard mixing buckets, and two or three sets of boardmaking racks. This was all reconfigured during the boom. By the mid-’60s, surf shops were mostly clean (if never fully sanitized), decorated, and fully provisioned. The "gone surfing" sign that used to hang from a locked front door was retired. Normal business hours were generally kept. Credit cards were accepted, layaway programs available.

What hadn't changed was the idea that the shop had to function as a clubhouse and salon as well as a factory-retail outlet. A hot local surfer or two could usually be found on premises, either making boards or working the counter; gremmies dutifully shuffled in after school or on weekends as much to be in the presence of greatness as to check out the new merchandise. A dozen or so name-brand shops in America and Australia were fairly good size; in 1966, Greg Noll moved his operation to a custom-made, nineteen-thousand-square-foot building in an industrialized area of Hermosa Beach. But most shops were small and located in their town's medium-low-rent commercial district. While it was was a tough business, with low margins and a high attrition rate, it seemed that for every two shops that closed, three new ones opened. Southern California alone had fifty surf shops in 1963; by 1967 the number was probably closer to seventy-five.

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We asked Matt more about our beloved watering hole:

Justin Housman wrote in a past Culture piece that the surf shop's vitality is from its function as a 'Third Place' — another space to gather and socialize outside of work and home. How did mid-’60s surf shops reflect that function?

Apart from the beach, the shop was your one-stop place for all things surf. Gear and mags and all that, but also somebody always had a second or third-hand report on how surf was up the coast, or who was just back from Hawaii, or who was ripping that morning. Before the internet, before beach cams, the shop was it was kind of everything—equipment, information, gossip, all in one OSHA-violating room.

Huntington Beach is maybe the first city that comes to mind when we talk about the surf shop. Talk a little more about Gordon Duane, and the command that he had over the Huntington retail scene at the time.

Gordie was a kingpin, in every sense of the word, of the Huntington scene, and there were a lot of shops in town, maybe a half-dozen. Gordie was tough and cool, sort of half surfer, half biker. Very Huntington Beach. But South Bay, especially Hermosa and this one strip of Pacific Coast Highway, where you had Jacobs, Bing, Weber, Rick, and Noll— the "Miracle Mile"—that was surf shop pinnacle.

Steve Pezman once called Hap Jacobs' showroom 'the Notre Dame Cathedral of surf shops.' What made it such an experience?

In the 1970s, Unity Surfboards either bought or rented the building where the Jacobs shop had been, and I was on the Unity team, so I spent a ridiculous number of hours in there. In fact, I worked there one summer, maybe in 1977. There was nothing all that spectacular about the building itself, except it had these huge plate glass windows facing PCH, and they were canted out slightly. That was really cool. Other than that, I think it was just a case, back when Pezman would have been visiting, where Hap had people dusting and vacuuming and tidying up around the clock. Jacobs was the cleanest shop in creation. Which in itself was enough to make it Cathedral-like.

Can't let you leave without asking the question: what does the future of the surf shop look like? Is there anything we can learn from the '60s surf shop?

I was in an Oregon shop a few back that looked and smelled just like the shops of my past, so they're still around, here and there. Less each year, I'm sure. Sid Abruzzi's Water Brothers shop in Newport, Rhode Island, was a classic old school surf shop, maybe the best in America, but it closed last year. I'm sorry to see 'em go. But I get why it's happening. You can't compete on a retail level. The independent shop will always be undersold by a big, high-volume store. Plus, there isn't the same need anymore for a hang-out place. All the info and entertainment we got from shops in the '60s and '70s, now you get it from Facebook or Instagram.

The other thing I remember about surf shops is that they were mostly staffed with punk-ass local surfers who didn't bother looking up when you walked in unless you were higher up the ladder than they were. If I could, I would slap my 17-year-old self for the way I treated customers that summer I worked at Unity.

Hobie Alter Surfboards, 1954

For more, visit the History Of Surfing website here. Missed a HOS chapter? Click here.