March 5, 2016

Mitch's Surf Shop

"He doesn't really do interviews," a shop employee told me after I told him about my blog and inquiried if the older man behind the front sales counter was the owner. "But you can still ask him."

"I don't really do interviews," the man behind the counter said in a polite, soft-spoken manner when I explained to him why I was there. But then he told me that I could talk to one of his shop managers and ask him anything I liked. When I asked if I could take pictures inside the shop he said "Sure, go ahead."

So I ended up talking to Carter, the shop manager on duty the day I walked into Mitch's Surf Shop in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego, CA.  He confirmed that the man behind the counter was indeed the owner, Mitch.  He explained that Mitch (who asked that his last name not be used) was a very private and humble person who didn't really care for much attention or acclaim. But as he spoke about Mitch's background and his shop, I came to understand just how private and humble he was, because he had a lot to brag about.

Mitch opened his surf shop in 1967.  It still stands in its original location at 631 Pearl Street, serving the needs of the San Diego surfing community for nearly 50 years.  Even assuming that Mitch opened his shop in his early twenties, he has to be pushing 70.  But the man I saw and spoke to briefly looked 20 years younger, with a lean frame, deep tan, and jet black hair.  An avid surfer since he was a teenager, Mitch still surfs to this day, even more than most of the younger guys working in his shop, according to Carter.  Having been a participant and supporter of the local surfing community for so long, Mitch knows just about everybody and everything that has to do with local surfing.

But Mitch's significance to local surfing goes beyond just being a wise older surfer.  He opened his shop in the late 1960s, right in the middle of a significant period in the history of surfing.  If the early 1960s witnessed the birth of the surf craze (involving the exploding popularity of surfing and surf-inspired popular culture), the late 1960s saw a surf industry take root, especially a surfboard industry, led by the shortboard revolution.

At the time, Mitch was a top wholesale supplier and retailer of Clark foam blanks, by far the most popular blanks sought by surfboard shapers.  Not only did he meet the needs of local individual shapers, he supplied blanks to numerous startup surfboard companies throughout California (and even beyond) in the 1970s and into the 80s. 

It's fair to say that Mitch played a crucial role in the burgeoning surfboard industry, often working things out with struggling companies so that they had the supplies they needed to continue operating. When I pressed Carter to name a few examples, he declined, presumably because he knew Mitch would not want to disclose someone else's business affairs nor appear to take credit for anything. Still, Carter insisted that Mitch was a "quiet keystone to the industry."

To this day, Mitch's Surf Shop still sells blanks, though not from Clark, which went out of business years ago.  It's something that makes the shop stand out from other surf shops.  (Another distinctive feature of the shop is its free diving and spear fishing merchandise and services, including the issuing of spear fishing licenses.)

Given such a strong connection to the surfboard industry, it's no surprise that the shop carries an impressive selection of surfboards and surfboard accessories. It carries pre-made boards from major brands like Channel Islands (Al Merrick), JS Industries, Firewire, and Hawaiian Pro Designs (Donald Takayama.)  It also has boards made by some small local companies such as Kevin Connolley Surfboards, Ellington Surfboards (Jim Ellington), and Tomo Surfboards (Daniel Thomson.). The shop can arrange for custom surfboards to be made by any of these board companies.

To complement its board selection, the shop offers every kind of accessory a surfer would need. It sells wetsuits mainly from three brands, Xcel, O'Neill, and Matuse, but its inventory is deep in terms of sizes and colors.  Fins in stock are Futures, FCS, Rainbow, Channel Islands, and Gorilla.  Leashes come from FCS, DaKine, Channel Islands, and Surf More.  Trackpads are available from the same leash brands, but also Astro and Gorilla.  Waxes for sale are Sticky Bumps and Sex Wax.

For surf tourists, the shop offers rentals of both soft and hard boards, mostly by FireWire and Ellington.  Wetsuit rentals  are either O'Neill or Xcel.  For surf novices, the shop doesn't have any in-house surf instructors, but given Mitch's extensive connections, he can always set someone up with the right instructor.

In terms of surfwear, the shop carries many of the major brands, including Quiksilver, Billabong, Volcom, RVCA, and Vans.  As for surfwear accessories, the shop has shoes mostly by Vans, flip-flops mainly by Rainbow and Reef, and sunglasses by nearly every major brand.

As for my main interest, original shop t-shirts, the shop has plenty of distinctive designs.  A few of them are designs by a well-known local surfer and surf artist named Glenn Chase (you can check out some of his artwork for sale at his website  One is based on a 1960s photo of renowned surfer Ronald Patterson at a popular local surf spot known as Windansea.  And then there is the shop logo.

The shop logo is a simple design with the name of the shop inside a bow tie border.   The logo has gone through some changes over the years, but nothing too drastic.  In fact, the original logo was just 
the shop name within a triangle border.

Original shop t-shirts are usually made from American Apparel blanks for men and Independent blanks for women.  Nearly all of the blanks are 100% cortton, but at least one is a tri-blend.  They are all screen printed with water-based inks.

For myself, I purchased a shop logo t-shirt.  As you would expect with an American Apparel blank, the t-shirt was softer and lighter than your typical 6.1/oz 100% jersey cotton surf shop t-shirt.  There was a little more shrinkage as well, which is not unusual for those softer cotton t-shirts.  So if the t-shirt feels a little snug when you try it on, you might want to go a size larger.  The print had a relatively soft hand, partly because the color choice didn't require a white base and partly because the open space in the design meant less ink had to be used.

If you're in the La Jolla area of San Diego and you want to visit Mitchh's Surf Shop, it's open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. and 10a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. If you want to meet Mitch the man himself, he's usually in the shop most days, doing everything from helping customers pick out the right accessory to answering questions about local surf spots.  Just don't ask him to talk about himself.

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