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The Waves Aren't Much, but All's Swell at Florida Surf Shop

Cocoa Beach's Ron Jon has grown up with the sport. It now attracts 2 million visitors a year.

September 28, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

COCOA BEACH, Fla. — It's a little after 4 a.m., and David Spadoni has stopped off at the giant, neon-trimmed store a block from the Atlantic to buy a cake of wax for his surfboard before hitting the waves.

"It's a heck of a convenience," the wispy-bearded, 19-year-old pharmacy student said of Ron Jon Surf Shop, which is open 24/7 and has become a symbol of the endless summer here.

A continent and more from the surfing mecca that is the Banzai Pipeline, the swells along Cocoa Beach are modest by Pacific Ocean standards. The waves usually are no more than waist-high and tend to break close to shore.

But still, some aficionados maintain, that's a boon for beginners.

"The water is warm here, and you can surf maybe 300 days a year," said Rusty Schaeffer, 50, an instructor at the Cocoa Beach Surfing School. "We have small, inconsistent waves. That helps the surfer excel when he can travel ... to other places."

One prime example of his theory may be Kelly Slater, a local who is arguably one of the best -- if not the greatest -- surfers ever, having won six world championships.

Ron Jon Surf Shop and the sport it caters to grew up here together.

In 1963, the year of the Beach Boys' anthem "Surfin' USA," Ron DiMenna, the son of a grocer, came to Cocoa Beach from the Jersey shore to open his second shop specializing in surfing gear.

An oceanfront resort south of Kennedy Space Center, Cocoa Beach was booming at that time from the influx of engineers and other NASA employees hired to beat the Russians in the space race. Once fiberglass surfboards became available, the sport's popularity mushroomed, said Dick Catry, 65, a pioneer surfer on Florida's Space Coast.

And since its inception here, Ron Jon has morphed into a 365-day-a-year retail opportunity. Managers say they have shut the doors only once in the last 14 years, when Hurricane Floyd nicked the eastern coast of Florida in 1999. With more than 45,000 items spread over a city block, the Art Deco-style emporium is a tourist attraction, visited by more than 2 million people a year.

When motorists enter Florida on Interstates 75 and 95 from Georgia, they are met by scores of billboards that tick down the miles to go to reach Ron Jon in Cocoa Beach. And as drivers cross the causeway from Florida's mainland and turn south on State Road A1A, the lilac and teal shop stands out. Even in the dead of night, outdoor speakers blare rock music, from ZZ Top to remakes of '60s surfing hits.

Inside are the tools of the trade -- surfboards, tethers, wax -- but also sunglasses, insulating sleeves for beer bottles, miniature footballs, plastic shovels and pails for making sandcastles and a special surfing edition of Monopoly.

And racks and racks of surfer clothing, some gaudy, some drab.

To outfit surfers and escapists alike, Ron Jon -- which now has five outlets, including one in California's Orange County -- has sold more than 8 million of its T-shirts, the store's most popular item. U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have been spotted wearing them. The company's shield-shaped logo may also be the only surfing brand to have made it into space. A Ron Jon sticker once was spotted on the Mir orbital platform.

"This is not like shopping. I hate shopping," said Stuart Brooke, on his fifth trip to Florida with his wife, Vivienne. For the couple from England, Ron Jon is now an integral part of their vacation. Accompanied by a brood of nieces and nephews, they stopped in one recent afternoon and dropped $100 on a watch, key rings and other merchandise.

In the wee hours, you might find veteran surfers here buying board wax or tourists stopping for a last-minute frenzy of souvenir shopping. Travis McReynolds, Ron Jon's night manager, recalls one customer who pulled up in a chauffeur-driven limousine and purchased a surfboard, a last-minute Christmas gift for his brother.

An estimated 1.6 million Americans now surf, and consumer surveys show many more like to dress as if they do.

"The world is full of wannabes who, if they don't surf or can't surf, want to look like and feel like a surfer," said Ron Jon President Ed Moriarty, a former Walt Disney Co. executive who surfed as a teenager in Southern California.

"What is that lifestyle? It's freedom. It's no hassles. It's stress-free. It's escape from everyday reality."

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