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High, Dry Business Hops Tide of Surfing

December 25, 1986|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

It may be Christmas everywhere else, but, for the folks at Val Surf, it truly is an endless summer.

Never mind that the beach is 20 miles away. Or that the only waves along that suburban stretch of Riverside Drive are the ones you get at the hair salon next door.

For 25 years, Mark, Eric and Kurt Richards--three guys from North Hollywood--have run the premier surf shop in the San Fernando Valley. In fact, for years, they ran the only surf shop in the Valley.

Ask any self-respecting surfer or skateboarder this side of Ventura Boulevard. Even ask their Malibu competitors.

"Val Surf is probably one of the best retail surf shops anywhere in the world," said Terry Lucoff, who owns a Malibu surf shop called Natural Progression.

It's shortly after 10 a.m. on the Saturday before Christmas. At the Val Surf counter, mothers are already jockeying for position. Some have anxious-looking sons in tow. Some just have lists.

Sarah Passot of Studio City has a list. Written in painstaking detail by her 13-year-old son, it enumerates a dozen or more objects of desire. Things like Thunder trucks, Rat Bone wheels, a Vision Gator board.

Holding the list at arm's length, Passot takes a deep breath and rattles off its contents to Val Surf employee Chris Carson.

"And it has to have a Val Surf sticker," she finishes.

Passot's son insists that she do his Christmas shopping at Val Surf. "He told me not to go anywhere else," Passot tells another customer.

Twenty minutes later, Passot leaves the store $105 poorer, but bearing a sleek, nine-pound wood and polyurethane skateboard with purple and white wheels.

For Carson, a five-year-employee of Val Surf, the scene is played Saturday time and time again, as parents unschooled in the intricacies of skate paraphernalia and surf lingo stumble into the jam-packed store for last-minute Christmas shopping.

Friendly and patient, Carson expounds on the relative merits of different brands and colors, quotes prices and gives quick lessons in aerodynamics.

"Some parents say, 'I don't want to hear about it, just give me the bill,' " says Carson, a USC marketing graduate. "Other parents are real interested in the different brands, and they want to know all about what their kids are doing. I like those parents."

The year was 1962, and Bill Richards of North Hollywood was growing disillusioned with his record-industry career. He was also growing mighty sick of driving his 15-year-old surfer son Mark to Hermosa Beach each time the kid needed a bar of wax.

"There were thousands of surfers in the Valley in 1962, and to us, it seemed ludicrous that they had to travel to the beach for everything from surfboards to wax," Mark Richards recalled. For Mark and his brothers, Kurt, 18, and Eric, 22, the solution was simple: open a surf shop on their own turf--the Val.

First, though, the Richards family

embarked on a research safari. Up and down the coast they drove, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, checking out the dozen or so surf shops that lined the beaches, noting everything from product mix to counter displays.

The family also persuaded Hobie Alter, who designed the surfboards and catamarans that bear his famous name, to make Val Surf the first Hobie surfboard dealer outside of Alter's original Dana Point store. A year later, Val Surf did the same with O'Neill--another famous surfboard maker.

From the beginning, the store also sold clothing and surfing accessories, which have boomed in recent years.

Val Surf boomed right alongside. In 1973, it opened a second store in Woodland Hills. In 1983, a third store was added in Northridge.

Although their father retired 10 years ago, all three brothers work at Val Surf full time and still live within a mile of the original store.

The brothers say the young men they sold surfboards to 20 years ago now bring their youngsters in to buy skateboards and surfboards, to flip through Surfer and Thrasher magazines or to gawk at the latest Day-Glo designs. Waiting on them is a second generation of Richards' employees--Eric's 18-year-old son, Damon.

"See that kid over there," said Mark Richards, pointing to Brian Dahlman, a well-scrubbed 13-year-old with braces. "He's in here every day, checking out the equipment, asking a million questions. We give him a certain number of questions he can ask, and then we cut him off. Otherwise we'd never get anything done," Richards said.

Brian, who skateboards to Val Surf after school most days, says his father used to work at the store. Asked if he'd like to do the same one day, Brian's face lit up.

"Sure," he said. "The people here are really nice. They know what they're talking about."

Mark Richards joked that Val Surf is more like a "little cult" than a shop.

"We have moms that drop the kids off and we baby-sit," said Eric, adding that, if the youngsters hang around long enough, "we eventually hire them."

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