These trailblazing surf shops made waves
Huntington Beach, 1954
In the 1950s, Nancy and Walter Katin’s shop catered to boaters looking for canvas boat covers. Late in the decade a young surfer, Corky Carroll, walked in for new trunks. The way Carroll tells it, he asked Walter to make him a pair. Eventually, other surfers took notice of the sturdy material that stood up to thrashing from waves.
It wasn’t long before the Katins were in a booming surf business, and they gave up the boat-cover business. After Walter died in 1967, Nancy ran the shop until she died in 1986. She left the business to their seamstress, Sato Hughes, who had started sewing Katin trunks in 1961.
Today, with Sato’s son Glenn in charge and Sato still sewing a lot of trunks, Katin maintains its detail and quality. “They were just like family,” Glenn said of the Katins. Sato, 86, works five days a week. “I call her the machine,” Glenn said. “She has no plans on retiring.”
Dana Point, 1954
Hobie Alter started shaping boards in his parents’ Laguna Beach summer home in the early ’50s using the usual heavy balsa wood. By the late ’50s he and Gordon “Grubby” Clark had changed the surf world forever after creating a polyurethane foam that made surfboards lighter and cheaper, allowing the masses to join the fun.
Alter, who died in 2014 at age 80, employed iconic shapers in his store through the years, including Mickey Munoz, Terry Martin and Corky Carroll. Alter got the idea of using foam from the aerospace industry; the same technology is used in most surfboards built today.
“The rest of the people weren’t so quick to adapt, but there was no doubt in his mind that this was the future,” author Paul Holmes said in an interview about his 2014 book, “Hobie: Master of Water, Wind and Waves.”
In 1954, Alter opened a custom surfboard factory and showroom in Dana Point.
In the late ’60s, he switched focus to sailboat design – specifically smaller boats that, at $999, were more affordable to the masses. His Hobie Cat soon became known as “the people’s boat.”
Mark Christy, the current president of Hobie Surf Shops, said about his company’s founder: “Hobie Alter opened his first surf shop, in 1954, with an unwavering commitment to innovation, quality and integrity. At the same time, he insisted that everything he did was fun ... for both his customers and himself. He said, ‘If it’s fun, it’s never work. And if it ain’t fun, it’s never worth it.’ ”
Huntington Beach, 1957
When Jack Hokanson first took his son surfing at the Huntington Pier, they emerged from the water nearly blue from the chill. He saw a need for a shop that sold more than just surfboards, including wetsuits to keep his sons warm.
While most early surf shops sold only boards and wax and maybe a few T-shirts, Hokanson soon opened a shop with wetsuits and clothing, along with skateboards and other goods.
The Huntington Beach shop at the corner of Main and Pacific Coast Highway – these days dubbed the “Times Square of Surfing” – opened in 1957. When Hokanson wanted out of the business years later, friends Ron Abdel and his uncle, Mike Abdelmuti, bought the shop. It’s still a family business, with Ron’s brother Bobby becoming a partner in 1976. When Abdelmuti died in 1992, his son Jamal also became an owner.
Today, Jack’s has six locations and two outlets, spanning from Hermosa Beach to San Clemente. Ron Abdel says the Jack’s chain is the largest surf retailer in the country. His Huntington Beach store carries more than 600 surfboards.
The Frog House
Newport Beach, 1962
Shop founder Frank Gensen started in the surf business in the early ’60s, driving an old milk truck filled with rental boards. Every few weeks, he’d get kicked out of an area for not having a business license, only to move on to the next beach. Before long he got a permanent building, where mostly he rented boards and surf mats.
The way today’s owner, T.K. Brimer, tells it, Gensen had, in those days, a hygiene-challenged friend named Frog. “Frog was so dirty that no one would live with him. He’d eat KFC and throw bones on the floor, and they’d stay there,” said Brimer, who started working in the shop in 1967. “It stunk. It was gross.”
When Gensen got the keys and opened the door to the new business, a friend noted how dirty it was by yelling out, “It looks like Frog’s house!” The name stuck.
After 10 years of working at The Frog House, Brimer bought the place from Gensen, who had found a new passion in sailing. “Frank was never a surfer. He enjoyed the surf lifestyle, but he never surfed,” Brimer said. “He didn’t even swim very well.”
The Frog House is one of the last hard-core shops to sell mostly boards, wetsuits and wax. “Clothing is where the money is. If all you care about is making money, you should be selling clothing,” Brimer said. “But I’m not about money.”
If the surf is good, Frog employees take shifts watching the store, each paddling out for an hour. “It’s all about the lifestyle, not net profit.” Brimer said. “We have to make some money to keep the place alive.”
Seal Beach, 1962
Rich Harbour was pretty good on the surf mats people rode, belly-down, back in the 1940s. But his mom, Alice, noticed other people standing up on boards to ride waves: “Why don’t you try that? It looks a lot funner.” He was hooked. He talked his folks into buying a surfboard in 1959, but someone stole it from his yard.
Harbour decided to make one, with help from his father, who was in the aerospace industry. Their first try, one of the earliest surfboards ever made with a foam core, didn’t turn out so well. “There was nobody to ask, no videos. It was pretty sad,” Harbour recalled. “It was so bad, kids were making fun of me.”
That same year he tried again and found himself making boards for buddies, most selling for about $100, big money then. It wasn’t long before he became one of the most respected boardmakers around. To date, with the help of other shapers, more than 31,000 Harbour boards have been produced, many fetching $1,000 and more.
These days, the Harbour retail shop, opened three years later, is owned and run by Robert Howson, who bought it in 1993. Harbour still occasionally plays with the foam and tools in the shaping room and handles the manufacturing side of the business. “This was the love of my life, and it still is, this business,” said the now – 71-year-old Harbour. “I just love doing what I do.”