Watering the Roots

In 1975 Jerry Grantham of Pismo Beach was the only shaper of note on California’s Central Coast, and wax was the only surf accessory available, sold at Al’s Sporting Goods in Cayucos, and Water Pro, a San Luis Obispo dive shop. The Morro Bay Surf Shop, where Mike, aka Cool Breezer sold wax and pipes at the front counter, was the only “surf shop” in the North Coast zone. The few surfers in SLO were at a loss for one of the most important components of surf culture: a core surf shop. Luckily, a couple of guys from LA’s South Bay were about to change that for good.

In the fall of ’72 Mike Chaney came to Cal Poly SLO on a baseball scholarship. 1972 was a super-rainy winter, creating sandbars everywhere along with plenty of free afternoons since baseball practice was rained out. Back then there were only a few people in the water, and an excess of open space. Jim Hall, Mike’s childhood buddy, quickly applied to Cal Poly once hearing about the abundance of empty waves, a phenomenon long since vanished. 

After spending his first year in the dorms as the only surfer surrounded by cowboys, Mike welcomed Jim to SLO. The two shared a room that gave easy access to the winding cement walkway around the dorms, perfect for skating, which ended in an ivy-covered bank to jump off into, if you could move your feet fast enough to run it out. Since almost every afternoon is onshore here, there was plenty of time to pass by wearing down skateboard wheels and bearings. Unfortunately there was nowhere locally to buy replacement wheels (especially urethane ones, which had only been around for a year or two), not to mention decks and trucks.  

By this time there was a crew of surfers in the dorms, including Danny Dunbar, Bill Adams (the Duke), and Sam George. Back then Sam was one of the only guys in the water doing S-turns, while most held a line as long and as straight as possible. No one wore leashes, and westuits were mostly jackets and short johns purchased on weekend trips to Southern California. 

Recognizing an opportunity, Danny used his connection with Eddie Talbot of ET Surfboards in LA’s South Bay, and started buying and reselling Ultraflex skateboards (a San Diego brand) out of his dorm room. As astute business and marketing students, Jim and Mike looked at Danny selling skateboards, and thought, “No one can buy wax, wetsuits, or skateboards from a retailer here, why don’t we start a surf shop?” So Jim, Danny, and Mike put in $2500 each, and Central Coast Surfboards was born. Besides Danny’s pirate skateboard operation, Jim was the only one with any practical knowledge of what they were about to attempt; his grandfather owned a ski- and drag-boat hardware shop, taken over by his dad until the gas crisis in the 70’s forced the shop to close its doors for good.

If it wasn’t for Jim’s entrepreneurial drive, Central Coast Surfboards might never have even began, let alone grow and thrive throughout the years. At this point, Mike remembers his parents being “…really disappointed when I told them I was going into business. Here I was, a junior at Cal Poly, doing well, getting a business degree, and suddenly I tell them ‘Yeah we’re going to open a little surf shop.’ I remember my dad just saying “…whaaaat…?” Later on, of course, they took every opportunity to brag.”

Jim, Mike, and Danny opened the doors to Central Coast Surfboards on Dec 7th 1975, and to this day it’s the longest continuously running surf shop in the county. Danny took Jim and Mike down to LA to meet Eddie Talbot, and the boys returned to fill the 600 square foot room at 2066 Chorro Street (Unit B) with ET surfboards, wetsuits, Hawaiian shirts, wax of course, and core stuff like resin, fiberglass cloth, and surfboard blanks, which were unavailable locally. Not only were people like accountants and tax collectors not consulted, but business licenses and operating permits were not bothered with either. In fact, the only business-like thing the boys did was to pay their buddy from the dorms, Sam George, to work the counter when they needed a day off. When this neglect was combined with the pouring of resin from 55-gallon drums into empty milk bottles for retail sale, it’s a wonder the only point of contention the guys had with city officials regarded the colors of the surfboard sign hanging over the front door. Luckily the city relented, the sign stayed, and the shop soon moved to the bigger, two-room Unit B next door.

While the shop was “growing,” there still wasn’t any money being made. Maybe this reflected the no-master-plan, this-seems-like-a-fun-thing-to-do approach the shop was launched with. All the cash went into repaying loans and keeping inventory stocked, which included 10-20 Central Coast Surfboards label boards. Stephen Mayfield (now a renowned Biotechnologist at UCSD) shaped the boards and Danny glassed them in their garage.

Even though the bank account wasn’t filling up (there was more than one day when total receipts totaled $0.25: a bar of wax), there were still riches to be enjoyed. One mid-late Seventies summer saw a certain North Coast spot going off, every day, all summer long. An easy routine was established; when the shop closed at 5:00 PM, whoever worked that day drove straight up north to surf until dark. Following a cheap plate of spaghetti at a nearby tourist hotel, they’d sleep on the beach or in their car, ready for the next session at dawn. After a morning of tubes and then pegging the accelerator for the drive south, they were home by 11:00 AM to open the shop. Back then, there was a profound lack of surfers compared to today, and the coastline was wide open. Zeppelin, the Doors, Black Sabbath, and Tom Petty blasted out of the tape deck as the miles rolled by, and trips to then-secluded spots yielded day-long sessions with no one else to be seen.

By the late Seventies, the shop was starting to gain a tenuous foothold. A combination of luck and tenacity had brought some big brands and smaller, but lucrative, opportunities. Mike and Jim weren’t the only ones looking for business; back then the surf magazines were filled with ads featuring different surfers, wetsuits, and products, but one thing they all had in common was a small line of text at the bottom of the ad: Dealer Inquiries Invited. By responding to nearly every one of those invitations, the guys grew the shop’s inventory to include OP, Hang Ten, Bayley Wetsuits, and Body Glove as their first big brands. For a while the shop’s bills were paid thanks to another San Luis Obispo upstart company, Beachcomber Bill’s rainbow foam sandals, which sold like crazy. Jim, most likely, saw an opening and soon he and Mike were cutting, gluing, and sanding keychain versions of the foam flip-flops in a garage. These were a hit. So much so that Beachcomber Bill’s themselves started mass producing them overseas, and thus the window closed on that venture.

...more to come!