Surfers and surf shops, one can’t exist without the other; theirs is a symbiotic relationship. From grommethood to adulthood, from working-life into marriage and parenthood, legions of the truly obsessed continue to visit surf shops. Like the growth rings of a tree, significant moments in the life of a surfer can be marked in these “Temples of Stoke;” a framework of existence made up of freeze-frame moments. Surf journalist, Sam George likens the surf shop experience to a “mirror into which surfers have gazed, searching for self.” And historian Matt Warshaw suggests that the surf shop is “a time tested cultural stronghold,” functioning as a channel for information, gossip, and propaganda, a supply center, workshop, and quite often as the theater of the absurd.
Historically Dale Velzy is credited with creating the surf shop ideal, when opening his 1950s factory and showroom in Manhattan Beach, California. Rudimentary at best, the first surf shops were little more than small, one room operations producing a single product: the surfboard. You, the customer, upon entering would likely find a pair of sawhorses, and a single, bare light bulb suspended from the ceiling, with balsa wood shavings, inches thick, carpeting the floor.
With time, and surfing’s cinematic popularity, the surf shop morphed into a factory/retail operation. Hobie Alter is credited with being the first to construct a purpose-built operation at Dana Point, California. By 1961 surf shops were becoming full service emporiums with silk-screened tee shirts, trunks (today’s boardshort), magazines, wetsuits, and board making supplies. By 1963, according to Peterson’s Surfing Yearbook, surf shops were exploding nationwide. There were 41 in Southern California alone!
Today the surf shop means many things to many people, but, as Justin Housman explains, writing on the Surfer Magazine blog, “the anchor of the surf shop is still the surfboard… you’re sure as hell not buying surfboards online…. We still insist on holding a board in our hands before buying it.” Houseman again, “… from the very beginning [surf shops] have always been about much more than just commerce…. [They have] functioned as a ‘third place’ – another place to gather and socialize outside of work, or school, or home.” For those of you who may be new to surfing and the current expression of the surf shop, there are still a few old-school “Temples of Stoke” around. Places were the guy or girl behind the counter can actually talk about the nuances of surfboards, and sell you the latest beach-lifestyle fashions, all while telling you about how the waves were that morning — because they surf. But you’d better hurry, they are an endangered species in today’s e-commerce, big-box, mass-produced society.
For more on the “Temples of Stoke, A Tribute to Surf Shops” experience visit the SURFING HERITAGE AND CULTURE CENTER (SHACC) at https://shacc.org/temples-of-stoke-on-display-through-october-29-2019/.
Andrew Cowell for Hobie Surf Shop and SHACC.