December 13, 2014

Esteem Surf Shop

A surfer's surf shop in Pismo Beach, CA, Esteem Surf Shop offers a full slate of surf merchandise and services.  While it is a profit-seeking business, it prides itself on staying true to the sport of surfing, the surf community, and the role of the surf shop in surf culture.  But you shouldn't mistake its pride for hostility to novice surfers or even non-surfers, like local surfers protecting a favorite surf spot.  Esteem Surf Shop is welcoming to all people who seek the stoke of surfing, whether you're an experienced surfer, novice surfer, or just a fan of surfing.

I quickly realized that Esteem Surf Shop had a strong philosophy when I saw the screen printed tag on its shop t-shirts.  Underneath the shop name was the slogan "Here for Good," and underneath that was a biblical quote from Philippians 2: 3-5: "Let nothing be done through selfish or vain Conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each Esteem others better than himself."  Rest assured, when you visit Esteem Surf Shop, you're not going to be immersed in religious dogma, like a rush of sea water through your nose after a wipeout.  Rather, the quote signifies the dedication to surfing and enthusiasm for helping others enjoy surfing on the part of the shop's owner and employees.

The owner of Esteem Surf Shop is Pismo Beach local Robbie Domingues, a devoted surfer with many years of experience in the surf retail industry.  Viewing surfing as a lifestyle of exercise, relaxation, and joy, Domingues has been surfing local breaks since he was 15 years old.  Now in his forties, he enjoys surfing as much as ever and still surfs with childhood friends.  Domingues also worked in surf shops for over 25 years before he finally fulfilled a dream by opening his own surf shop with his business partner Randall Hamilton in 2002.  Truly dedicated to his shop, he earned his nickname "the Janitor" by filling any role that was needed at any particular time, from the owner all the way down to the janitor.

Though the original shop opened a couple of blocks down on Cypress Street, its current location is in a brick building on the corner of Cypress and Hines Avenue.  The interior of the 1250 square foot shop is one of the more appealing I've seen, with its exposed brick walls, exposed rafters with hanging vintage surfboards, hardwood floors, and wooden household tables converted into display tables.

Domingues is usually in the shop most days of the week.  I got the chance to talk to him in person (and later on the phone), and we delved into some more profound topics than I usually cover during my surf shop interviews.  Domingues believes that his shop offers a "true surf culture experience," a claim which led to a discussion of the issue of authenticity.  At what point do surf brands and surf shops lose touch with surf culture?

Domingues made some really good points.  In the case of surf brands, he says they usually lose touch with surf culture as they become more corporate and pursue ever-increasing profits.  They start branching out into speciality items, slapping their logos on just about anything that will sell.  His argument reminded me of something I once read about Gerry Lopez, who parted ways with the Lightning Bolt brand he co-founded when it started putting out crap (he actually used a synonym for crap.)  And I recently realized what Lopez was taking about when I saw an 80s-style, Velcro wallet with a Lightning Bolt logo being sold on eBay.  Eventually, Domingues suggested, these brands attempt to retain authenticity by sponsoring well-known professional surfers or purchasing smaller, up-and-coming brands.

As for surf shops, Domingues believes they lose authenticity when they also just chase the money.  Some of the things they might start doing include: becoming retail chains instead of neighborhood surf shops, employing staff that knows very little about the products it sells and is just there to ring the register, selling only the major surf merchandise brands, and cutting back support for their local surf community.

For Domingues, a surf shop should do the opposite of these things.  It should be connected to the local community and know about local surf breaks, employ staff that can answer questions about surfing and surf merchandise, give up-and-coming brands some shelf space, and support the local surf community with surf teams, special events, and the like. Perhaps most importantly, it should be more than just a place that sells stuff. It should be a place people can hang out and call home, especially kids who want to learn to surf or improve their surfing.

Just to be clear, Domingues isn't a surf purist who looks down on making money. In fact, several years ago he opened three more surf shops with his business partner, but they closed in 2010 due to the Great Recession.  Although that experience ended his partnership, it sharpened his vision about what a surf shop should be.  He also sees "Esteem" as a brand as much as a shop, and someday would like to see his merchandise in other surf shops mainly along the California coast. He just believes that however surf shop owners choose to run their businesses they should stay focused and never lose sight of their primary mission of serving their local surf community.

Naturally, getting surfers in the water is a key part of the mission of Esteem Surf Shop.  To help fulfill it, the shop offers a decent selection of surfboards, wetsuits, and surfboard accessories.  The surfboard brands it carries include Roberts, Lost, Aipa, Superbrand, and Firewire.  If a surfer needs a custom-made board, it can be ordered from Roberts Surfboards through the shop.  Used boards are also for sale, as the shop either buys used boards for resale or sells on consignment.  For its wetsuit selection, the shop offers Body Glove, Isurus, and Patagonia.  It has a wide range of accessories available, including leashes, fins, trackpads, travel bags, and car racks, the majority of which are from the On a Mission brand.

If a novice surfer needs some lessons or a tourist surfer on vacation wants to hit the water, the shop supplies surfboard and wetsuit rentals.  It rents a wide selection of hard and soft-top surfboards, many of which come from the same brands it sells.  Its wetsuit rentals are mainly Body Glove. As for lessons, private, one-on-one lessons go for $100/hour, and that includes rental equipment for the day.

Besides surf equipment, the shop also has a nice selection of surfwear and surfwear accesories.  Despite what he might think of any particular brand, Domingues realizes that the major surfwear brands sell well, and as I mentioned he's not against making money.  The major surfwear brands available at the shop are Rusty, RVCA, Lost, Patagonia, and Lightning Bolt. Also on the shelves, in keeping with the shop's effort to stay in tune with the pulse of surf culture, are some small, independent, up-and-coming brands, like Roark, Iron & Resin, and Rhythm.

To round out any surfwear wardrobe, the shop has accessories from a variety of brands.  Its sunglasses selection mainly consists of Spy, Ray-Ban, and Oakley.  Its flip-flop selection includes Zanuk, Cobian, Olakai, and Rainbow.

Of course, my main interest is surf shop t-shirts, and Esteem Surf Shop has a few original shop t-shirts that would give some style and distinction to anyone's surfwear wardrobe.  Most shop t-shirts not only have that provocative tag I mentioned at the start of this post, but also the shop logo.  The heart of the shop logo is a symbol that looks like two 'E's facing each other, which is inspired by the abundance of 'E's in the shop name.  This symbol is often accompanied by the shop name, though the font used for the name varies.

Although shop t-shirts occasionally display an original surf-themed design, most of them just feature a variation of the shop logo.  I bought one of those t-shirts, which had the shop logo printed across the front chest.  The blank brand of the t-shirt I bought was a soft, 4+ oz cotton, American Apparel blank (probably model 2001), though the shop also sometimes uses a similar model from Alstyle Apparel & Activewear.  The shop's t-shirts are usually printed with water-based ink, but sometimes discharge ink is used.  I'm not sure which ink was used for the t-shirt I bought, but either way the print had a very soft hand.

Esteem Surf Shop has a website at where it has shop information, a blog, and an online store.  The blog doesn't appear to have been updated in a couple of years, which probably makes people hesitate to buy from its online store, but it is open for business nevertheless.  If you want or need to go to the shop itself to pick up what you need, you can find it at 590 Cypress Street, Pismo Beach, CA.  It is open 7 days a week, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

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