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In Surf Shop Duel, Both Ride High

The rivalry between two Huntington Beach stores is becoming a small legend in itself.

June 15, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The competition begins early. Store employees wheel a clothes rack onto the bustling downtown Huntington Beach sidewalk and hang a sign announcing a clearance sale. Within minutes, employees at the store across the street respond with an impromptu sidewalk sale of their own.

In the heart of Huntington Beach, where surfing's laid-back, live-for-the-moment, aloha spirit has traditionally reigned, a rivalry rages between a pair of Main Street surfboard shops.

On one side of the street is Jack's Surfboards, a family-owned shop that has long been a touchstone for surfers. Jammed with surfboards, sand chairs and beach-cool clothing, Jack's -- run by Lutfi "Ron" Abdelfattah and his family -- also has a huge, multimillion-dollar mail-order business selling clothing to Japan, Australia and Indonesia.

Across the street is Huntington Surf and Sport, just as loaded with surf gear and customers. It is owned by Aaron Pai, a Hawaiian-born surfer who turned a $2.25-an-hour job selling surfboards into a retail success story.

If the stores were in other towns rather than on the lip of the Pacific Ocean, the street-corner competition might go unnoticed. But at Main and Pacific Coast Highway, considered by some to be surfing's cultural crossroads, the retail showdown has become a small legend itself.

When Jack's tore down a wall and introduced a section for bodyboarding equipment, Pai removed a sandwich shop and jumped on the longboard bandwagon, creating a store within a store.

When one store sponsored a surf team, the other followed suit. One started its own clothing line; now both sport their own brands. One opened a satellite store, then the other did the same.

Jack's hit a public relations home run when it introduced the Surfing Walk of Fame, patterned after the famed Hollywood sidewalk, to recognize famous surfers. Not to be outdone, Pai countered by introducing a Surfing Hall of Fame.

So far, it's been a fight without a loser. There are 20 top retailers across the country that are considered anchors for the surf industry. Both Jack's and Huntington Surf and Sport rank in the top five in terms of size, inventory and influence, said Kelly Gibson, president of O'Neill's clothing in Irvine.

"They're 20 yards away from each other," Gibson said, "and they're very, very successful retailers."

Both are lined to the walls with enough wetsuits, flippers and surfboards for several aquatic Goodwill Games. The brands and styles of shoes, sandals, wetsuits, sunglasses and other beach products they carry can dictate what thousands of teenagers will wear this summer.

The one-upmanship was pretty much taken in stride until the beach city rivals ended up with competing sidewalks dedicated to the legends of surfing.

The late Mike Abdelmuti, one of the owners of Jack's who died last year of cancer at age 62, helped establish the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Abdelmuti was the main financial supporter, donating an estimated $500,000 over the years to the walk, which has granite tiles recognizing surfing celebrities.

More than 50 names have been etched on the tiles, which -- of course -- are in front of Jack's. For those 10 years, Pai watched as hundreds of spectators, and potential customers, gathered each year in front of Jack's store seeking autographs from the walk's new inductees.

Last year, Pai countered by introducing the Surfing Hall of Fame, which features the handprints and footprints of big-time wave riders.

Now some famous surfers get to be legends ... twice.

Former Mayor Don McAllister, who co-founded the Walk of Fame, was surprised by the turn of events.

"When we started organizing the Walk of Fame, we invited Aaron to join us, but he didn't want to put in any money," McAllister said. "Now, they're their own thing."

If there is a sense of redundancy with the hall and walk of fame, Pai says he doesn't see it.

"Look, I wanted to do something and, hey, it works in Hollywood," he said.

But it has led to occasional confusion about which side of the street has what.

Last year, surf star Brad Gerlach was to be inducted into the Walk of Fame, but when he confused it with an event the next day across the street, he showed up at the wrong time and on the wrong day.

"I was at home on [induction day] when someone called me at the ceremony, saying, 'ey, you're up in 15 minutes. Where are you?' " said Gerlach, 37, who lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. "I was so bummed."

To win city permission for the Hall of Fame, Pai hired a public relations firm to help push his idea and win approval to demolish a fountain in front of his store. In its place, he commissioned an artist to create a large bronze statue of surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku to anchor the Hall of Fame.

Seven people have been inducted, and ceremonies for another three were held over Memorial Day weekend.

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