Jurassic Shop: Aging surf-shop owners search for a way out from behind the counter.

Jim Vaughan hasn’t traded his surf trunks for Depends, his Surfline.com password for one on ElderDepot.com, or his surf mag subscription for AARP The Magazine, but he’s not far from it.

He’s only half joking when he considers installing a handicapped ramp at the end of the counter at Whalebone Surf Shop on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where he’s been selling the stoke since 1975. According to Vaughan, “If I got some kid on the other side of the counter looking at a bald-headed guy with a white beard who’s trying to tell him which sunglasses are cool, he’s going, ‘What the hell do you know?’

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From coast to coast, town to town, surf shop to surf shop, individual cries such as Vaughan’s are becoming one giant harmonious lament of “I’m getting’ too old for this shit. The majority of shop owners got their start in the 1970s, just as the surfing industry was coming into existence. Very few of them had any business experience, but they knew about surfing and managed to scrap together enough dough to open their doors for business.

Fast-forward 30 years, and those same guys are still at it, servicing our every boardriding need on worn knees and smiling through a weathered facade. They are dinosaurs—living fossils of an earlier era. Most of them couldn’t care less who’s leading the ASP tour and what kind of airbrush he has on his six-foot potato chip. What will happen in the next five or ten years as these relics finally decide to throw in the surf towel and step out from behind the counter for good? Are there any young surfers out there who are willing to step into their well-worn booties? Will they simply close the doors and walk away? What will it mean for the surf market?

What A Drag It Is Getting Old
“It’s a real issue in the industry as a whole, admits Mikke Pierson of Santa Monica’s ZJ Boarding House on the matter of aging within the surfing workplace. “If I’m setting the trends at 43, that’s fucked up.

Fortunately, a surf shop’s role isn’t to set the trends, rather to understand them and stock them. But even keeping up with what’s in and what’s out every season is a difficult and endless task.

“I really love what I do, claims Vaughan, who has begun wondering if he’ll be able to sneak into daylight before the whole wave closes out on him. “I gave up a high-paying job in Florida in 1974 for a lifestyle. I don’t want to be a big chain store, but all of a sudden I’m watching Hollister and all of these big guys get into it. I’m not big enough to go public, and I can’t really sell it. No one big enough would want to buy it, and no one small could afford it. It’s just getting harder to keep that stoke.

Owning and operating a surf shop could never qualify as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, and money isn’t the reason surfers go into business in the first place. (Money is the reason corporate America is putting its grubby paws all over the sport today, but they’ll will move on to the next big thing as soon as this latest surfing boom subsides.) Like Vaughan says, it’s about the lifestyle. What surfer wouldn’t want to have a life that revolves around his first love?

However, as bills mount, business fluctuates, and good help is often elusive, that desired existence slips right out with the tide.

“All the paperwork is a pain in the ass, insists Steve Carlson of Central Coast Surfboards in San Luis Obispo, “and there’s getting to be more and more of it. But when you sell a surfboard, that’s where it’s at. You’ve only made 30 dollars for that hour of talk, but it feeds your soul. That’s why we do this. There’s not a day where I don’t get amped to go to work.

Finding that silver lining after decades of toil is an ongoing struggle, made even more difficult when you live somewhere that doesn’t have consistent surf. “It’s easy for me because I never gave up fixing dings, argues Tony Giordano, who, at 49, is a 28-year veteran at Ocean Hut Surf Shop in Lavallette, New Jersey. “I never miss was and still hang around with the kids. I’m still into it, and I walk around here and don’t know how old I am. Who thinks of retiring when you own a surf shop? I’m not ready to let go in any shape or form.

Tony G, as he’s known, is the exception. He’s managed to be successful, raise a family, and somehow stay just as keen on surfing and selling as the day he set up shop. Others, like Roy Turner of Surf City in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, are reaching a period of awakening after a quarter century of fighting to remain young. “When I was 30, I wrote myself a note saying when you’re 45, you can’t keep trying to act like that, he recalls. “One day you wake up and realize you’re almost 50 and still trying to tell a fourteen year old what’s cool. If you were that fourteen year old, would you listen?

What A Drag It Is Being Young
Sean Fell, whose Waterboyz Surf Shop in Pensacola, Florida stands to sell nearly a million dollars’ worth of surfgear for 2003, still wonders whether he made the right decision when he ditched dental school to get into selling surfboards.

“I can think of better things to do with your time and money, he says. Now in his mid thirties, Fell is a pup among old dogs in the surf business. He started out building boards in his garage, moved to a bigger garage, and eventually got into retail (and remains a board builder part-time). He is one of the rare young shop owners who forged ahead despite paddling into a near-certain cleanup set of obstacles.

“I still have a hard time getting the big lines, he laments. “We don’t carry Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl. We have Volcom, but that’s just because I grew up with the Florida rep. It costs a lot of money to get started, and unless they {prospective shop owners} have rich parents it’s not going to happen.

According to Vaughan, there are three major stumbling blocks facing today’s fledgling surf businesspeople. “It’s hard work because of all the competition, you need way more cake to get started than before, and it’s hard to get the big players to sell you, he proclaims. “If you want to open a small business today, they got handbooks on how to do it, but you still don’t see many young people getting into it.

Before there was an ongoing battle for business in every little surf town, it was obviously easier to learn as you went without fear of being blown away by the competition. “We made tons of mistakes, and it never came back to haunt us, offers Becker’s Dave Hollander, one of the proud owners of five stores and a thriving e-commerce business. “Now you need to be sophisticated and streetwise. It’s not like the 80s. Landlords are more sophisticated and want to see a good business plan. Key locations don’t come up, and when they do speculators are all over them.

Whereas the baby boomers opened surf shops, the next generation became surf reps, and nowadays the options are boundless. As a youngster fresh out of school and looking for a career in the surfing industry, it could be anything from marketing to promotions, writing, photography, video, graphic design, and on and on—most of which hold more curb appeal for youngsters than the day-in, day-out drudgery of owning a shop.

“Kids see me working my butt off and bitching, says Vaughan, “and they decide they’d rather become an intern at Hurley, work nine to five, and go on lots of surf trips.

The growth of the surf industry has had both positive and negative ramifications for the independent shop owner. “For us, working in the shop made you the voice for your community, attests Carlson. “You were the man. Now, the kids are like, ‘Dude, so-and-so’s making 50-grand working for Quik, and he gets to play all day.’ For them, that’s living the life. Guys in the shop are lucky if they make more than eight bucks and hour and get to go to San Diego for vacation.

As it turns out, the problem of aging extends throughout mankind, which includes Orange County (where you have to look beyond the plastic surgery, but it’s there). The people making our wetsuits and boardshorts also aren’t getting any younger, but the size of these operations as opposed to a surf shop offers one major difference. There’s a lot more money lying around, so it’s easy for these companies to hire plenty of young MBAs to see that business avoids a major wipeout. For the fresh blood, it’s the best of both worlds—the surfing lifestyle and a healthy salary to boot.

The people who in the past might have chosen to work in a surf shop are now flocking to the vendors. According to Carlson, “These guys come into the shop, and they’re like, ‘I’ve just been on my eighth trip of the year. Now buy some stuff from me.’

The Next Wave
“Our method of retail doesn’t appear to be the future, admits Pierson. “In Orlando {at Surf Expo} I did see a few young guys come up and say they were getting into it, but on the West Coast I can’t think of any.

There’s no getting around the fact that the shop dinosaurs are an endangered species. They aren’t going to be running things for much longer, so it’s just a question of where the replacements will come from. Many shop owners were smart enough to procreate during the 1970s and 80s, and in many cases their offspring are falling right into the family business. In those instances, the transition will go off without a hitch. Those without children (or who don’t trust the ones they have) are grooming longtime managers to one day assume the helm. The old man in the back will carry less and less responsibility, while the progeny will run the floor, hopefully not into the ground.

Even with Business For Dummies books, Web sites, and seminars torrentially pouring from the sky, there was until recently nowhere for a surf-shop owner to turn for advice that is specific to our quirky little industry. Fortunately, Roy Turner and others understood this need and began brainstorming as far back as the mid 80s for an answer. Just as Marie Tucek’s 1893 invention, now known as the bra, offered support to women the world over, Turner’s Board Retailers Association (BRA) hopes to do the same for wayward surf-shop owners.

Board Retailers Association is a nonprofit group that aims to help the small shop owner navigate what can be a tricky lineup. Besides serving up a cohesive retailer voice within the industry, it provides members with valuable savings on operating expenses, including insurance, freight, travel, and credit. The experience of the dinosaurs is filtered down via a newsletter, an interactive Web site, and various seminars covering a range of topics. Membership costs 125 bucks a year, but the rewards could mean the difference between digging rails and blazing off the top.

“It’s the best thing in the world now that it’s gotten off the ground, attests Carlson. “It’s like AA for independent board shops. Put your chairs in a circle and sit around going, ‘Well, how did we get here, and where are we going?’

Shop owners from all walks of life are equally giddy over the potential benefits of an organization such as Board Retailers Association. It’s like learning to surf with an instructor on a foam board at a mushy beachbreak as opposed to paddling straight out at Pipe and hurling yourself over the ledge. There’s no way it won’t succeed and help young businesses do the same.

Still, there’s something to be said for going it alone. Seven years ago, John Villela and two fellow employees at a Ventura County shop decided to follow their hearts. “We were doing a lot of work and not getting a lot out of it, recalls John. “We looked at it like, ‘What can we do to keep surfing?’ Not a lot of other jobs allow you to take surf trips.

[IMAGE 2]

The partners found backing from private investors and established Revolution Surf Shop in Camarillo, California. They made travel a high priority, and with three of them around, it was easy for one to leave for up to a month at a stretch. It took them a few years to convince thec surgery, but it’s there). The people making our wetsuits and boardshorts also aren’t getting any younger, but the size of these operations as opposed to a surf shop offers one major difference. There’s a lot more money lying around, so it’s easy for these companies to hire plenty of young MBAs to see that business avoids a major wipeout. For the fresh blood, it’s the best of both worlds—the surfing lifestyle and a healthy salary to boot.

The people who in the past might have chosen to work in a surf shop are now flocking to the vendors. According to Carlson, “These guys come into the shop, and they’re like, ‘I’ve just been on my eighth trip of the year. Now buy some stuff from me.’

The Next Wave
“Our method of retail doesn’t appear to be the future, admits Pierson. “In Orlando {at Surf Expo} I did see a few young guys come up and say they were getting into it, but on the West Coast I can’t think of any.

There’s no getting around the fact that the shop dinosaurs are an endangered species. They aren’t going to be running things for much longer, so it’s just a question of where the replacements will come from. Many shop owners were smart enough to procreate during the 1970s and 80s, and in many cases their offspring are falling right into the family business. In those instances, the transition will go off without a hitch. Those without children (or who don’t trust the ones they have) are grooming longtime managers to one day assume the helm. The old man in the back will carry less and less responsibility, while the progeny will run the floor, hopefully not into the ground.

Even with Business For Dummies books, Web sites, and seminars torrentially pouring from the sky, there was until recently nowhere for a surf-shop owner to turn for advice that is specific to our quirky little industry. Fortunately, Roy Turner and others understood this need and began brainstorming as far back as the mid 80s for an answer. Just as Marie Tucek’s 1893 invention, now known as the bra, offered support to women the world over, Turner’s Board Retailers Association (BRA) hopes to do the same for wayward surf-shop owners.

Board Retailers Association is a nonprofit group that aims to help the small shop owner navigate what can be a tricky lineup. Besides serving up a cohesive retailer voice within the industry, it provides members with valuable savings on operating expenses, including insurance, freight, travel, and credit. The experience of the dinosaurs is filtered down via a newsletter, an interactive Web site, and various seminars covering a range of topics. Membership costs 125 bucks a year, but the rewards could mean the difference between digging rails and blazing off the top.

“It’s the best thing in the world now that it’s gotten off the ground, attests Carlson. “It’s like AA for independent board shops. Put your chairs in a circle and sit around going, ‘Well, how did we get here, and where are we going?’

Shop owners from all walks of life are equally giddy over the potential benefits of an organization such as Board Retailers Association. It’s like learning to surf with an instructor on a foam board at a mushy beachbreak as opposed to paddling straight out at Pipe and hurling yourself over the ledge. There’s no way it won’t succeed and help young businesses do the same.

Still, there’s something to be said for going it alone. Seven years ago, John Villela and two fellow employees at a Ventura County shop decided to follow their hearts. “We were doing a lot of work and not getting a lot out of it, recalls John. “We looked at it like, ‘What can we do to keep surfing?’ Not a lot of other jobs allow you to take surf trips.

[IMAGE 2]

The partners found backing from private investors and established Revolution Surf Shop in Camarillo, California. They made travel a high priority, and with three of them around, it was easy for one to leave for up to a month at a stretch. It took them a few years to convince the key vendors to get involved, but now they’re rocking.

While cases like this one aren’t exactly commonplace, it does go to show that even though the dinosaurs won’t be around forever, the dreams they had way back in the 70s live on. the key vendors to get involved, but now they’re rocking.

While cases like this one aren’t exactly commonplace, it does go to show that even though the dinosaurs won’t be around forever, the dreams they had way back in the 70s live on.