As one of the world’s major surfing centres, California is home to countless cool surf shops up and down the coast—stretching from San Diego County up to Orange County, L.A. County, Santa Cruz, and all the way to San Francisco.
Walk into a classic surf shop and you should smell surf wax and catch a whiff of neoprene from the wetsuit room. Your steps might crunch with sand underfoot that’s been tracked in from a beach so close that you can almost hear the ocean. And of course, there should be plenty of local surfers checking out boards and talking waves.
Even if you’re unlikely to take on Mavericks, many great surf shops have a little something for fans of surfing culture—be it swim-friendly board shorts, T-shirts, or a pair of classic Vans. Iconic surf brands were started here, from Mr. Zog's Sex Wax in Carpinteria to Victoria Skim Boards in Laguna Beach and O'Neill in Santa Cruz.
Read on to explore some of California’s classic surf shops, listed south to north.
The Coast Highway in Encinitas and northern San Diego County—also known as “Old Highway 101”—is one of the great surfing roads in America. Connecting such fabled breaks as Swami’s and Pipes, the highway inspired the song “Surf Route 101,” a minor classic from 1964.
Hansen Surfboards dates back to 1961, started by South Dakota native Don Hansen, who first shaped surfboards in a shack on Oahu’s North Shore. Hansen moved to Encinitas, on the 101, in the 1970s, and Hansen Surfboards has grown into a 1,850 square-metre store—the largest surf shop in San Diego County—across from the break at Swami’s.
Browse their collection of 500 boards, including many Hansen models, as well as an assortment from such leading companies as Santa Barbara–based Channel Islands Surfboards. Even if you’ve never caught a wave, you’ll find plenty of great Hansen-branded clothing, including T-shirts featuring the company’s original logo.
Since the 1950s opening of Gordie Surfboards beneath the city’s landmark pier, Huntington Beach (nicknamed “Surf City USA") has been home to a remarkable 47 surf shops, as well as the headquarters for both Quiksilver and Roxy. Two don’t-miss shops, though, are Jack’s Surfboards and Huntington Surf & Sport.
Indeed, surfing’s equivalent of Times Square or Hollywood and Vine might be the intersection of Huntington Beach’s Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway. On one corner is Jack’s Surfboards, a surfing palace that began as a modest shop in 1957. Outside, you can pay tribute to surfing greats memorialised in a slew of granite monuments at the Surfing Walk of Fame.
On the opposite corner is Huntington Surf & Sport’s flagship store, which is home to the Surfers’ Hall of Fame—the sport’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater—thanks to the footprints, signatures, and handprints of the biggest names in surfing. A statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the three-time Olympic swimming gold medallist and Hawaiian surfing icon who helped bring the sport to Huntington Beach, stands in the plaza outside. Inside, you’ll find a surfing megastore, with a huge wetsuit room and a massive collection of boards from leading shapers. Take a break in the store café Java Point, where you can hang with surfers fresh from the lineup along the Huntington Pier.
About six-and-a-half kilpmetres down the coast from this Carpinteria shop, you can watch surfers riding the celebrated point wave that inspired this company’s name. Dubbed “the Queen of the Coast,” Rincon has also been called Southern California’s finest wave and “America’s gold standard pointbreak.”
Rincon Designs Surf Shop owner and Carpinteria native Matt Moore has been a board shaper since he was a kid, and he opened Rincon Designs in 1980. The shop now occupies two storefronts in the heart of this Santa Barbara County town—one side painted a bright, tropical turquoise, with a wooden longboard next to the entrance, and the other side a Western-style facade made of planks and cobblestones. Moore still makes boards on-site—“mowing foam,” as shapers call their craft. You’ll also find shorts, sunglasses, and a great collection of Rincon-branded hoodies, caps, and T-shirts. If you ever decide to make the move from wannabe to waverider, Rincon Designs also rents wetsuits and surfboards.
With its enormous selection, E.T. Surf—in L.A. County’s Hermosa Beach—is absolutely out-of-this-world. The store’s initials don’t stand for “extraterrestrial,” though, but rather shop founder Eddie Talbot, who began the business in 1972 after working for legendary big-wave rider Greg Noll (who had his own shop, until 1971).
Today, the Aviation Boulevard shop, a bit inland from the beach, is quite literally packed to its wooden rafters with pretty much anything surfers and non-surfers will need. TimeOut Los Angeles described the shop as “two stories of controlled chaos,” but a friendly, attitude-free staff will guide you through the labyrinth. There are endless pairs of thongs, from the likes of Olukai and Rainbow. Skateboard decks line the walls in one section, while surfers can climb past vintage pictures on a veritable stairway to heaven to the board room of their dreams.
The beach town of Santa Cruz was where surfing first came to the mainland U.S.: Back in 1885, three Hawaiian royals used redwood boards to ride the waves where the San Lorenzo River meets the ocean.
Today, Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane is one of the best spots in California to watch surfers, and the classic bach town is also home to three O’Neill Surf Shops, founded by the late California surfing legend and wetsuit innovator Jack O’Neill. You can’t get more “core,” to put it in surfer lingo, than O’Neill—who was as famous for his pirate-like patch (a surfing accident cost him his left eye) and unruly beard as his contributions to the sport.
O’Neill opened his first Santa Cruz retail business in 1959, maybe 90 metres from Cowell Beach, and now the company operates shops near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, in downtown, and on 41st Avenue in Capitola. Shop at any of them—the selection for surfers and non-surfers alike is huge—and you’ll catch a bit of surfing history. The Capitola store even displays O’Neill’s original wetsuit top.
As proof of San Francisco’s depth of culture, it can even boast of having serious surf street cred. Surfing legend Jack O’Neill pioneered the city’s surfing scene back in the early 1950s. In those pre-wetsuit days, O’Neill rode a balsa wood board, braving the frigid waters and the notoriously fickle waves at Ocean Beach’s Kelly’s Cove, then later opened Mollusk Surf Shop, one of the world’s first surf shops, just off the Great Highway.
A few short blocks from the beach, Mollusk Surf Shop is a very different kind of surf shop from O’Neill’s original store, down the coastline in Santa Cruz. It serves as a bit of a hangout for the San Francisco surfing community, and, of course, sells boards—everything from longboards from Marina del Rey’s Anderson surfboards to barely four-foot-long paipos, a wooden bodyboard by Wegener Surf of Encinitas. Shop for wetsuits and vintage-style board shorts sewn right in San Francisco, as well as arty T-shirts that pay tribute to the local surf scene, whales, and even harvest moons.
Indeed, Mollusk isn’t only about the sport of surfing, but also about the art of surfing: The shop has books, a gallery space for art shows, and live music events (don’t miss the second-floor space that looks like a weird wooden submarine). The shop has also expanded into Southern California, with locations in Silver Lake and Venice Beach.