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 in SLO County, there was plenty of time to wear down skateboard wheels and bearings. Unfortunately there was nowhere locally to buy replacements (especially urethane wheels, 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.”

Mike, Jim, 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 A) 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 accountants and tax assessors ignored, but licenses and 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 without a respirator, glove, or exhaust fan in sight.

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. One of the guys saw an opening and soon they 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. (While the surf industry seems small today, it was really small back then. The Beachcomber Bill’s rep was also the advertising guy for Hang Ten, and so the Central Coast Surf crew was used to model clothes in national Hang Ten ads.) 

The start-and-stop, up-and-down-but-mostly-down nature of an entrepreneurial surf venture was by now giving both Jim and Mike pause. Growth at the shop was slow, and continuing to pour resources into it seemed a risky proposition; something drastic was about to happen. While leafing through the classified ad section in the local paper, the guys, each on their own, came across an ad for a Rainbow Vac Company Sales Associate recruiting pitch; being a door-to-door vacuum salesman seemed like it might be a better call than trying to pull a living out of a surf shop. At the first break in the meeting, Mike and Jim ran into each other outside, and with understanding nods both decided that a life of flexible work-hours around the surf was better than pushing vacuum cleaners on people. That was the closest either one of them ever came to a real job interview.

After deciding that a reliable paycheck wasn’t for them, the guys had to dedicate themselves to growing the shop as much as possible. So, in 1980, spurred on by the need to make some money (and to compete with Surf ’n’ Wear moving in from Santa Barbara) they relocated downtown to 990 Monterey Street (Phoenix Books today), between Boo Boo Records and a cobbler’s shop. 

About this time an article infamous in local lore was published in Surfer Magazine. Written by then-Central Coast Surfboards employee, now one of the surf world's most important voices Dave Parmenter, the article showed pictures and named (a couple) names of the mostly unknown local zone. 

Parmenter was the standout surfer of the region. Not only because of his speed, big carves, and vertical whacks, but his brightly colored boards and wetsuits set him apart from the clear-board/black-wetsuit, mind-your-own-business vibe pervasive to the area. Dave and his crew were crucial to the Central Coast's surf development: discovering new spots and creating a scene where young surfers could positively influence each other and get better quickly. However, the progression Dave was pushing wasn't appreciated by all, and the shop took the brunt of the local's wrath about the multi-page article, including printed handbills in parking lots and a brick with a note taped around it reading "Death to Central Coast Surfboards. Your graves are waiting for you at xxxxxx." being tossed through the shop window. Mike was bummed, and says it was hard not to take it all personally, as the shop was still basically just a way for the guys to barely afford to surf, and no one in ownership contributed to the story or showed the magazine any spots. Soon though, Jim and Mike were going to be looking far beyond the coastline of SLO County.

New arrival Surf ‘n’ Wear was raking it in, cashing out $700 dollar days while Mike and Jim sold some sandals and a few bars of wax. As Jim says, "It was a scary time," but the new location helped, and when the next door unit became available, the guys knocked out the wall and expanded. Then one rainy day in 1983, while flipping through Skateboarder Magazine, employee Steve Beck offhandedly said to Mike, "Hey Chaney, how come we don't do something like this?" while holding up a Val Surf mail order ad. Mike called Skateboarder for ad rates, Carlin Design came up with a layout, and California Cheap Skates was born. 

A phone was set up in an unused, little cubby corner of the shop, and they started saving incoming boxes in case anything sold from the ad. When the new issue of Skateboarder came out and the phone rang for the first time, no one could figure out where it was coming from. Finally, someone went back and answered the phone, took an order, and came back shouting that they’d sold a skateboard. Jim recalls that, maybe a week later “It got to the point where… the phone would ring, you’d take an order, hang up and take two steps out and the phone would ring again.” After taking orders all day, and packing them up at night (the saved boxes didn’t last long!), that one phone was suddenly not enough. 

The timing could not have been better, as skateboarding was experiencing a massive surge in popularity, and snowboarders were starting to outnumber skiers in the mountains. California Cheap Skates quickly moved to a warehouse on 141 Suburban Road and grew to about a dozen phones with 30 foot-long cords, and, as Mike recalls "...a customer would call and say 'I want a set of those Road Riders.' And the operator would get up, get 'em and say 'I got 'em right here man!'" Soon there were 50 phones, and in about 1985, the one-page ad turned into a catalog, which was considered the bible of product to skaters all across the country. Opportunities were rolling in and the guys jumped on every one that came their way. It was as if that first one-page ad was a shovel-full of coal, and the California Cheap Skates train just kept picking up speed, with Mike and Jim constantly throwing new fuel into the fire. The offerings expanded to include an apparel catalog (California Surf Styles) and snowboard gear, and mail order kept growing. 

The success of the skate/snow mail order business also helped out the surf side of things. In typical random fashion, Jim and Mike unexpectedly  found themselves in the exporting business when a Japanese surf shop chain called to inquire about buying surfboards. At the time, Levi’s, Izod, and Sperry Shoes were very popular and hard to get in Japan, and the guys’ new partners asked if they could ship those as well. “Of course we sell those brands!” was Mike's reply, and after some hurried phone calls and quick credit checks, Central Coast Surfboards became a dealer of the era’s most popular preppie-style companies. Along with Central Coast Surfboards-branded boards (now made by Jim Fuller at South Shore in Costa Mesa), jeans, polo shirts, and boat shoes were soon steaming across the Pacific in containers bound for Japan.

...more to come!