A surf shop is a shop about surf. The surf shop is where you go to find out what’s up. Is that sand bar still pumping? Seen Whitey lately? What board is happening now and who shaped it? A surf shop has to have foam dust around somewhere. Origins are important. You know the guy who shaped your stick and who sells you wax. You will find out from him what is happening in the water. Maybe your last board is in the used rack waiting to be ridden again. This is where you go when there’s no surf. The surf shop.
Growing up in Southern California as a surfer in the sixties I had some of the originals as models. As a grom I got custom ordered surfboards from Hobie, Harbor, and Surfboards Hawaii. I was a Team Rider for Bill Wetzel of Wetzel Surfboards in 1967! He was kind of an OG Barretta. I spent time in Huntington Beach and met an extraordinary shaper named Will Jobson. He shaped full time for Chuck Dent Surfboards, a hard core Huntington Beach shop. Wil always had an experimental design going on the side, as he was a true genius developer and had to keep discovering how to make a surfboard work better. He always had his newest design concepts in foam and glass, sanding coat only and no sticker in the water until he figured it out, then he would move on to the next one. I got the castaways! So I surfed Wil’s surfboards a lot until I relocated to the cold, rough, shark infested Sonoma coast.
Career and kids kept me out of the water for a few years and I had to get used to cold water, huge winter surf and sharks. But I did and brought my kids along and a few other groms. We surfed Dillon and Bolinas and both were way different than today, but we needed stuff to surf and there were only two places to get surf stuff: Rob Klinker surfboards and some strange store in a giant plastic mall in downtown Santa Rosa called ‘Surf Plus'. I decided to try Klinker first for sticks. His shop was in Sebastopol close to the now Whole Foods and he had his shaping and glassing stuff in old chicken coops nearby. I figured this is the local scene so I’ll be fair and try the Klinkers out. We ordered four boards for the family, and two actually caught waves. The other two had to be tolerated until I could find sticks suitable for fiery groms. So I ventured deep into the heart of Coddingtown Mall in search of ‘Surf Plus’.
I found it glistening with huge glass windows and bikinis, and way more Plus than Surf. I walked through and noticed a few Pearson Arrows and huge racks of expensive corporate surf clothes. The young woman at the sales counter didn’t surf. I couldn’t do it. I walked out and went home and called Wil Jobson who, at that time was shaping for Robert August in Huntington Beach. "Sure, man, come on down and I’ll help ya out”. So we headed south and ordered a half dozen Dynamic Balance surfboards, Wil’s new private label. The surfboards all rocked and we were surfing Dillon everyday. Old Dillon where you could park ANYWHERE and there were only a few guys there on the best days. We started getting stuff from Bob Wise on Taraval street in the City and I was spending a lot on gear for the groms.
Wil suggested that I carry his Dynamic Balance Surfboards as a small business and I went for that instantly and got a shipment of six thrusters and put a rack up in my small graphic design studio in Petaluma. Now I needed to advertise so I put a tiny ad in the classifieds in the Press Democrat. It went something like this, I think;
Dynamic Balance Surfboards, Shaped by Wil Jobson blah blah call or stop by and the address and a phone number.
I waited for a call to see if anything would happen. I remember being nervous. I came to the Petaluma studio the next morning and there was a message on my new answering machine. Although it was not a friendly call, and I was warned that I would get the shit beat out of me if I was ever spotted in the water peddling “imported” surfboards. I mean, the guy was explosively pissed! I decided then and there I would open a surf shop and peddle “imported” surfboards.
But where to open a surf shop? I had a career as a graphic designer going and not a lot of spare cash and time but I also loved to surf and wanted my kids in on it. I lived just outside Tomales and knew the Diekmanns who ran the local country store. Kristen Diekmann had a big room over the store that she wasn’t using. I asked her if I could rent it and put in a surf shop and she said no problem and rented me the entire upper part of the Diekmanns general store for $125 a month. Good deal even for 1986. Close to our home break. Mellow. Hard to see from the road. Perfect. I got a business license and opened Northern Light Surf Shop in the spring of 1986. No logo but lots of Dynamic Balance Surfboards. But I needed wetsuits and accessories, booties, leashes, stuff you need to surf so I started calling suppliers. Wetsuits first. Hotline was the suit a lot of us were wearing in 1986. Hotline from Santa Cruz. I called them and said I was opening a new shop in Sonoma County and wanted to carry Hotlines. “That’s cool that you are opening a shop but we cant sell to you. Peter from Surf Plus in the plastic shopping mall said he would cancel all orders if we sell you wetsuits. He’s our busiest customer north of San Francisco. Sorry, bro.”
What? No Hotlines? Snaked? I called Body Glove. Same thing. “Sorry bro, Peter won’t let us sell to you.” I called Victory. Same bullshit. Snaked again. Oneill, the same thing, until I found Wavelength, an Australian company that didn’t give a shit about Surf Plus. We started getting suits and accessories from them. The reps were super supportive and came up here from SoCal and surfed. The company was really good to us, and the guys from Hotline, Body Glove and Victory all felt bad about avoiding Northern Light but what could they do? They would stop in Tomales and say hi after visiting the godfather at Surf Plus.
The shop was slowly being discovered by guys surfing Dillon and driving along Hwy 1 north and south. We thought it was time for a sign. I had an old non sticker log that was yellowed and frozen in time that looked like it could be a Northern Light sign, and all it needed was someone to paint it. I was then working with Ted Judah a young graphic designer at my studio who was also an excellent surfer. He is still around surfing today (2023), and I think he is one of the best surfers to come from around here. He grew up in the houses just off Doran. He was also an artist, and we agreed to trade a custom Dynamic Balance Twinzer for him painting the sign. I think it lasted and went to Bodega for a while. So we had a sign and more surfers started coming in.
The Dynamic Balance shapes were catching on and we were selling custom Twinzers. The logo had a “DB” section to it, and some of the cryptic locals thought it stood for Dillon Beach, since the shop was near there. Noel Robinson, Chad Bolla, Mike Dougherty, Kevin Butler and some other guys would come in and check things out. They rarely came to Dillon since the surf there is weak and inconsistent except for Sharkpit. By the way, Wil Jobson named Sharkpit, but that’s another story. There was a long boarder named Pat Orr who used to surf Dillon a lot, and Daily Dale Webster stopped in once in awhile. Don Martin came in, and we started hanging out and I met the Salmon Creek boys, Steven Soderberg, Bruno, and the hard core guys.
I thought about T-shirts and stickers and board decals but we didn’t have a logo. Kevin Butler was and probably still is an excellent surfer. He told me his brother, Clay Butler was an artist who did great surf stuff, so we went to Monterey with Kevin and met Clay and invited him up to see the shop. He came up a few weeks later and said sure, he’ll do a logo, and traded him a custom Twinzer for the stick. I remember it clearly, and I can still sketch it today. I had been designing packaging for the wine industry and was playing with diamond shapes, which were rare since the older labeling machines had to be modified for weird shapes. This was old school times. So I sketched a doodle on a paper napkin. You have to have a wave, so I sketched a loopy right. Why not a left? I’m a goofy foot, after all. Noel Robinson, a classic goofy foot charger, would always put the logo up backwards so it was a left. Then since it was Northern, I put an arc for the setting sun with the suggestion of the clouds and scribbled NORTHERN LIGHT crossed it and handed it to Clay who took it home to Monterey and drew the logo in pen and ink. It was all hand done. We didn’t have computers. The original was about 12 inches high and didn’t have
I added that shortly after with LetraSet press type! It is so amazing that the logo has lasted so long without significant alteration.
Don Martin, owner number two, started hanging out doing the shop when I went to my real job. Don was massively enthusiastic about the shop and brought Mitch Palmer around to hang out and he would study Wil’s designs for long periods of time. Don became more active in Surfrider Foundation stuff and formed the “Sons of Beaches” to stop the State from charging to park along the Sonoma Coast. We used to have “Sons of Beaches” meetings at the shop.
But we were still being persecuted by Surf Plus and couldn’t get popular wetsuits.
One day Mike Doherty streamed into the shop all stoked and fired up.
“You have to move the shop. You are too far away from the surf traffic to Salmon and Goat and 'other spots'. There is a corner for rent next to the Bodega General store. We’ll help you move.”
It was a good idea but the place was micro. But it had a shed out back next to Dave Jolly’s shaping shack that has endured and is now Barberra. It was a good move. We started growing even though we were small, and surf reps started dropping by. One was Marcel Soros from Body Glove in Santa Cruz. Marcel is an OG Santa Cruz local and liked what we were doing. “Fuck Surf Plus. I’ll sell you Body Glove anytime.” So we placed an order. Then the Victory guy came around and said he would sell to us against Surf Plus’s demands. Then Hotline, Quicksilver and everybody else. Its not like we sold lots of rubber, but at least we got good stuff for surfers and sold at a fair price. I always passed on deals to the surfers, I couldn’t help it. The locals deserve it since the were part of the landscape. Surf Plus quit babbling but had to keep up so they invented Bodega Surf Shack. Those guys were cool though and all got along once the plastic wore off.
Some of the first surfers to start hanging out on the Bodega corner Northern Light were to the local groms. Ben Hakala, Abel, and a tall blond-haired girl who surfed Salmon Creek and took pictures when she wasn't in the water. Her name was Sarah. She now hangs out a lot more!
It was time for a Northern Light t-shirt so we got the guy right behind us who was a screen printer to print a dozen white shirts with back ink. Don and I got shirts and I think Mitch Palmer, but we gave the very first one printed to Daily Dale Webster. He wore the first Northern Light t-shirt. For the next batch a worked with the screen printer to develop a split fountain run to get more colors on the same pass. The yellow to red fade was one pass and the water and waves a blue and green pass. I worked pretty well and we started printing shirts.
I carried Dynamic Balances the whole time but also developed a relationship with Tim Bessel in San Diego. Noel surfed for him for a while. Also had some Xanadus, Rynn Noll Surfboards and some JDs from Santa Cruz. And Mitch’s boards began to appear when he moved into the shaping shack out back.
I admit that I am a terrible business person. I didn’t carry much clothing and I was always giving my friends deals, so since just about everyone was my friend. I ended up giving deals to everyone. I wasn’t doing well financially, but was having a great time! Don Martin said he would buy it off me, which amounted to him paying off tax debts. I said adios and now, four owners into its long life, Northern Light Surf Shop is in two locations and the logo has traveled all over the world. Nick and then, Sarah have done an awesome job keeping the hardcore surf shop species from extinction. Congratulations.
p.s. check out Aprils limited print!
Mitch Palmer says...
I very rich history of the guys and gals forged. What we know as our cold water surfing heritage! So very proud to be a part of it.!
On Apr 18, 2023
Walt Waldorf says...
Always nice to read something about the surfing community..
On Apr 18, 2023
Lorenzo Lago says...
Nice, spirited chapter in Steve’s life. He’s an artist, poet, surfer, gardener, family man, and true soul brother. I’m honored to call Steve a best friend for over sixty years. Aloha Bro!
On Apr 18, 2023