Sensing an untapped market, and weary of shuttling his three sons to Malibu beaches to buy surfboards, in 1962 record producer Bill Richards opened Val Surf & Sport in North Hollywood. His sons spun tales of the "thousands of Valley surfers" who would clamor for merchandise at an inland store. He listened.
Thirty years later, Val Surf--now with two other stores--is still in business, and operated by Richards' three beach boys who are well into middle age. A few other surf stores in the state have been around longer than Val Surf. "But no other shop has had longer family ownership," said Mark Richards, 45, who still surfs, unlike his brothers, Kurt, 48, and Eric, 52. Val Surf also sells ski and skate equipment, clothing and accessories.
Forty-five is old for a surfer, but Mark Richards is down to Malibu beaches by 8 o'clock each summer morning. He surfs three hours before suiting up for work in shorts, sandals and a Hang Ten shirt.
Fortunately he isn't the only middle-aged surfer these days--and that's helped his business survive the recession.
The 13-to 27-year-old surfer has traditionally been the market targeted by retailers. That's changing. "Guys in their 40s and 50s come in here all the time, wanting to get back into surfing for exercise, or they want to introduce it to their kids," said Mark Richards. "Or sometimes they're trying to keep up with their kids who now surf."
To do that, older surfers are buying longer surfboards, called longboards. Longboards have less maneuverability than shorter boards, but have greater stability, allowing middle-aged surfers to ride the waves when their reflexes are slowing down.
Topping nine feet, longboards were largely replaced in the late 1960s by shortboards that now average 6 1/2 feet. But the introduction of lighter polyurethane foam in the late 1970s helped today's longboards shed 20 pounds from weights of around 40 pounds in the 1960s.
Surfboard manufacturers and surf shops specializing in longboards are benefiting from the trend. "Mostly doctors, lawyers and other older professionals are buying longboards--heavily during the past two years," said Henry Ford, retail manager of Stewart Sports. "We call them the Gold Card Club." Stewart Sports is a San Clemente-based manufacturer of longboards, a major surfboard manufacturer that sells 250 boards a week.
Although surfboards produce only about 5% of Val Surf's total sales, the Richards display surf-boards prominently to lure customers. Val Surf sells about 500 surfboards a year, 25% of which are longboards, Richards said, up 15% from last summer.
A rival store, Breezin Surf & Sport in Ventura, reports that longboard sales now comprise 50% of their surfboard sales, up from 20% last summer.
Val Surf sells longboards for up to $550 each, compared to an average $325 for a shortboard. Richards would not reveal Val Surf's annual sales, but based on surfboards sold, the combined sales of his three stores probably are a modest $3.5 million a year.
Overall, Val Surf's sales are down 5% this year. "The recession has hit us just like other retail businesses," said Richards, who is the company president.
Surfing dates back at least to the 18th Century when Western explorers discovered Polynesians riding wooden boards off what are now the Hawaiian islands. Earlier this century surfboards were still primitive--as long as 18 feet and made of heavy redwood. Lighter woods were used in the 1940s, and by the 1950s much lighter weight polyurethane foam boards began to be used.
Surfing exploded after the movie "Gidget" was released in 1959, and grew steadily until the early-1980s recession triggered a downturn. In the late 1980s, particularly as department stores added more and more surf goods, Richards said, the industry suffered an overexpansion. And it hit another slump last year, sharpened by the current recession.
Because of their size, the popular longboards are easier to paddle and can hold the larger girth of older surfers who find shortboards a bit tippy. The shortboard's compact design is great for tricks and cutting through waves. Perhaps the shortboard's biggest drawback is that surfers cannot ride its nose--called "hanging 10"--as they can on a longboard.
Two magazines targeting older surfers began publishing this year and a dozen surf clubs for older members have formed up and down the coast in the past five years. Longboarders now dominate at half a dozen Southern California beaches. The "Surf-Legends Classic," held again in August on a Costa Rica beach, features two dozen surfing legends. Also, at least four clothing manufacturers offer classic surf-wear that dates back to the 1960s. Younger surfers have also latched on to the retro look.
Bill Richards, now 81 and retired, never partook of surfing trends, he just marketed them, usually on the advice of his three sons who were equal partners in the business since day one.