Why Surf Shops Matter
The First Surf Shop – A Mythical Place?
Surf shops are more than just a place where money can be exchanged for a new board, a new wetsuit, a t-shirt or a bar of wax. Surf shops, since their inception, have held a place in surfing culture as gatekeepers of almost secret knowledge and insight. Although nowadays the internet has changed how you find out how good the waves are or hear the latest surf news, the surf shop remains a critical part of surf culture.
“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 [Health & Safety] -violating room.”
- Matt Warshaw, Encyclopedia of Surfing & History of Surfing
One of the claimants to the foam throne of first surf shop glory is Dale Velzy of Velzy Surfboards, Manhattan Beach, California back in 1950. The story goes that his shop was established after being “encouraged” to move his board shaping operation from underneath the local pier. By shop here we should clarify that Velzy’s surf shop was barely more than a shaping bay were you more likely to leave with a nose full of foam dust than any kind of surf apparel or equipment.
Dale Velzy, Hap Jacobs, Bill Meistrall and Bev Morgan outide Dive N' Surf surf shop in 1955, via surfing heritage and culture centre.
Slightly later in 1952 Jack O’Neill would open ‘The Surf Shop’ in San Francisco. This shop sold the wetsuits that he would later go on to make his name from, as well as a selection of boards from local shapers. Mr O’Neill arguably has far greater claim to opening the first proper retailing outlet for surfers.
Jack O'Neill's First Surf Shop, via BBC
Surf Shops on British Shores
Despite the steady development of surfing through the 50s in America, it would take over a decade for surfing to crystallise into brick-and-mortar establishments on British shores. The swinging 60s brought a new energy to Britain’s coastline, and as the decade progressed several surf shops, factories, and companies began to blossom around Britain’s coastline.
Bilbo Surfboards factory in Newquay, May 1966, by Doug Wilson.
The first bona-fide surfing establishment on the British Isles was Doug Wilson’s St Ives surf shop. This was followed a few years later by the European Surfing Company setting up in the town that still holds the title of the seat of British surfing, Newquay. The European Surfing Company opened in February of 1965 followed swiftly by a second Newquay shop ‘The Surf Centre’ on Fore Street. These three locations would become the surf industry’s first outposts on European shores.
British surf shops were based around two things at the time: clothing and surfboards. Enterprising surf capitalists with links to the textiles industry, such as Doug Wilson, were commissioning board shorts be made from sail cloth down in St Ives as well as importing them from abroad. Meanwhile, a host of craftsmen had established back garden shaping sheds, gleaning information brought over from travelling Australian and American surfers and lifeguards that would be synthesised into the British surfboard industry.
"In the seventies there were very few surf shops, so the jobs were always taken by hard-core surfers, not just 17 or 18 year olds. All of the guys could give quality advice because of their surfing ability, which was needed due to the fact that the sport was only a decade old on these shores. The surf shops were owned by surfers who had started surfing in the sixties, so working in a surf shop was very cool and the staff were looked up to and with a lot of envy - it was a surfer's dream job. This new industry was moving very fast because it was so young, so working in a surf shop meant being around and seeing lots of new development in surfboard shapes and wet suit design, and you knew everybody. It was the best time ever to be a surfer."
- Carey Brown, C-Skins founder
More Than Just a Retail Outlet
The jewel in Newquay’s board shaping crown became the Bilbo factory on Pargolla Road, which at its peak in the 1960s was producing sixty boards a week. An established location in the town where travelling surfers could visit and share surfing insight, knowledge and experience was how new surfing styles and boards were developed. Rod Holmes wrote about the scene at the time:
"Board shops had a certain delicious magic, entrancing surfers who would be happy to just stand and stare. It was something you HAD to be a part of – to soak up the atmosphere. It was all so new, the sights, sounds and smells of an exotic way of life, using new materials with strange spacey properties."
- Rod Holmes, author, You Should Have Been Here Yesterday
Rod Sumpter, via Encyclopedia of Surfing
The 60s was a magical birthing moment in British surfing where it went from being a curious hobby practiced by strangers on the edge of society to the start of a more widely adopted lifestyle. Since those early days in the 60s and 70s a multi-million-dollar global clothing industry has developed, changing the face of British surf shops. In those intervening years countless bucket-and-spade beach shops have morphed into surf shops and many more have opened, to service the growing community of British surfers and the desire to buy into the lifestyle.
Zuma Jay Surf Shop, Bude
Surfing, and the culture that surrounds it has rarely settled however, but surf shops remain a rite of passage for many young surfers, particularly those looking to find their way into the surf industry. By the early 2000s globalisation and commercialism had taken hold and the heyday of local shapers crafting boards out of garden sheds and small factories had peaked, with international brands dominating. Although walls plastered with posters have largely been replaced by TV’s playing the latest surf movies, surf shops maintain their reputation as community hubs.
“I see Zuma Jay as a fundamental part of Bude’s surf community. As a young teen getting new boards and equipment from Zumas are some of my most exciting memories, and I’d always meet other surfers I looked up to in the shop and have spent hours talking about the banks and forecasts there. Surf shops can connect generations and have a huge influence on the safety and etiquette of our surfing community. You just can’t get that kind of customer service online. Support your Local!”
Barnaby Cox – C-Skins Team Rider
C-Skins is proud to have cultivated relationships with surf-shops all around the UK since the company’s formation in 1997. We supply over 90 surf shops and distributors throughout Europe and work with them to supply surfers with the best possible equipment to maximise their time in the ocean. We are proud to be a part of surf culture and look forward to working further with local surf communities well into our future.