Eric “Bird” Huffman: How The Bird Got His Wings

HOW THE BIRD GOT HIS WINGS

Words By Eric “Bird” Huffman

I was born in San Diego, California on April 17th, 1957. I was the fourth child of Robert & Marion Huffman. By the time my folks stopped having kids there were nine of us in total. I have five sisters and three brothers. My folks loaded up the old Studebaker, hitched on a wooden trailer, and headed west to check out California, leaving the cold and snow of Minnesota.  After their car broke down at Mission Bay, they planted their roots and decided to call San Diego home.

My mom was into the beach and La Jolla Cove was her SPOT. She would load the kids into our old Plymouth and hit The Cove as many times a week as possible. As the family grew, a Volkswagen van became the preferred mode of transportation. For as long as I can remember the beaches of San Diego have been like a home to me. We all grew up with the ocean being in our lives, so wave riding of some sort was pretty much a given. Styrofoam boards, hard rental rafts, skim boards, belly boards, etc… everything was part of the quiver. Whatever we could get our hands on we would ride… and let’s not forget about the many hours spent bodysurfing. The ocean was everything to us as a family.

Growing up in Mission Hills (which is about 3 miles from the beach), the winter beach days were far less frequent. It was a bummer, but we had no wetsuits to keep us warm so we just had to deal with it. As my two brothers grew older they both started to ride kneeboards. Kneeboards are shorter and easier to transport which is a good thing when you’re peddling on a bike 3 or 4 miles each way to the beach. At that point in time they cost a whole lot less that a surfboard so it just made sense. The boards we rode were basically like belly boards that could be ridden on your knees. Mark and Rex started to get into it and were able to infiltrate a group of young kneeboarders who surfed at Sunset Cliffs and some of the La Jolla areas that most stand up surfers feared to tread. Being the little brother I was constantly under-foot looking for rides to the beach and, more importantly, my own equipment.

We all continued to grow and so did kneeboarding as a sport. Special shapes were being built by some of our fellow kneeboarders as well as a few regular surfboard shapers. Most our boards were built out of garages of friends and surfers we met at the beach At that time, a 3rd-quality blank from Mitch’s Surf Shop in La Jolla was only $5.  Resin, fiberglass, fins, buckets etc only cost a few dollars more. Add in $10 for the shaper fee and you were in the water. Sounds cheap, right? Not so fast. Paper routes paid poorly back then and doing yard work took away from your time in the water, not-to-mention that a boards lifespan was short, as the quality of construction was poor and NO leashes were even thought of at that time.

 

SELECT SURF SHOP

At that point in my life all I wanted was good equipment and that was pretty how I got into the Surf Biz in the first place. There were very few surf shops in San Diego at the time and boards were not cheap. By sheer luck, a neighbor up the street owned the coolest surf shop in town. Select Surf Shop and its owner Phil Castagnola were everything that was cool about surfing at the time. They had the best boards and the heaviest locals. On any given day at the Select there was hot chicks and cold beers, plenty of smokes and other sorts of contraband. It was for sure where I wanted to be.

Select-surf-shop-phil-castagnola
Big Phil Castagnola Owner of Select Surf Shop and Olympic Surfboards

 

Phil knew EVERYONE and the shop was like a Mecca that drew all the core faithful through its doors. Enter a surf-stoked 13 year-old Catholic school kid and the game was on. I would work for nothing; cleaning, running errands etc… just for a chance to hang out and get a ride home. Over time, I became a payable employee but not a coin was exchanged as all funds I acquired were invested back into the best equipment I could get my hands on.

At first it was just some better quality used stuff, then as I started getting new gear at TEAM pricing, it got better and better. I soaked up all the information and made all the connections I could. As time went on I was lucky enough to know and work with countless first-rate board builders and world-class surfers.

Shapers like Bill Caster, Skip Frye, Hank Warner, Stevie Lis, and Gary Goodrum all became friends and mentors to me. Surfers like Chris O’Rourke, Dale Dobson, Tim Lynch, Gary Keating, etc… would talk story and share surf tips with me regularly. Over the 10-year period that I worked and managed Select Surf Shop there was never a dull moment. There were times that Big Phil owed so much money to people that I was afraid that somebody would come in and beat it out of him.

On more than a few occasions when it looked like that was going to happen Phil would work his magic, calm the person down AND then borrow even more money from them! Such was Phil’s way. The ultimate conman/salesman/hero and friend that always had a smile on his face. I learned and saw things at Select that sent me down the road of life well prepared for what lay ahead.

 

LA JOLLA SURF SYSTEMS

At the very end of 1979..maybe early 1980, I was approached by Jeff Junkins to manage a great shop at La Jolla Shores called La Jolla Surf Systems. At first I was hesitant to make the move. Surf Systems was everything that Select wasn’t. It was well funded, well stocked, and very commercial and big brand oriented. Not only would my paycheck triple from what I was making at Select, I would actually get the money. After a bit of soul searching I made the move and “sold out” as I was often reminded by some of the older crew who I looked up to.

I soon settled in to a rocky few years at Surf Systems. It was made quite complicated by a co-owner who was often hammered or was high as a kite on any one or several illegal substances. I did manage to learn quite a bit about buying and stocking a full-service surf shop and I also continued to meet all the major players in this fast-growing industry. At around the two-year mark at Surf Systems I couldn’t take any more of the drama that was going on between the owners and I up and quit. It was the first and only time that I was not working in the surf industry in my entire life. But that wouldn’t last for long.

La Jolla Surf Systems and one of the most famous ads ever. Proofs in the Pudding. Shawn Stussy, Bill Caster, Bird, JLJ, Tim Bessell and Gary McNabb.

 

WINDANSEA BEACH AN SURF

After a few months of planning and scraping some money together, I partnered with Bill Caster and Ernie Higgins (who was Bill’s Glasser at the time and a former manager at Select.). We opened up Windansea Beach an’ Surf in 1983 on the corner of Bonair street and La Jolla boulevard, just a block up the street from the legendary surf break Windansea. Rent was only $125/month with all the waves you could catch within walking distance. It was tight from the get-go. We were vastly under-capitalized and trying hard to compete with a growing number of well-established surf shops in the area. It was a hard fought battle to survive.

All that I had learned from the past years from Phil at Select and from JLJ  at Surf Systems was not enough to make success a sure thing. Now I needed to meet and deal with the upper management of the surf industry. Most everybody is your friend when you work at a surf shop, but it’s a whole different story when you own one. Even after knowing quite a few of the major players from throughout the industry, I had to pay my dues. It would be years before I could become a dealer for a lot of the key brands.

As the years passed by and business would come in and go and by 1990 the economy was once again in a bad way and my partners wanted out of the business. Recessions and trends would come and go and running a surf shop never got any easier. I was still meeting and working with all of the best people involved in the surf biz and new things were learned everyday but still I knew things could be better. I liquidated whatever I could and borrowed a chunk of money so that I could buy out the partners and struggle on as a surf shop owner. Those were some rough but wonderful years spent in our Pacific Beach location at the foot of Crystal Pier. Skip Frye shared a door on the side of my shop and a great community evolved over the years.

 

Windansea Beach an Surf
Tom Curren in front of Windansea Beach an surf 1990

 

LOOKING FOR A CHANGE

In late ’91 I struck up a conversation with Rob Ard who owned one of best surf shops in OB called South Coast. He was closing down his inland store and wanted to concentrate his interest back at the beach areas. We struck up a test market plan where I would market and sell South Coast Surfboards and clothing in my Pacific Beach location  to see if there was a market for his product. After a trial period time of approximately a year a plan was made to partner up with one of Rob’s old managers, Erich Tramonti, and turn Windansea Beach an’ Surf into South Coast-Windansea. While That venture was another pivotal step in my growth as a business owner, It was difficult to unlearn all I had up until that point. I was and always will be a surfboard lover and my focus will always be loyal to that first and foremost. By the time 2011 rolled around, I was ready to go solo and go “Back to the Future.”  I turned my old quonset hut where i used to store my collection of boards into Bird’s Surf Shed.It was a leap of faith, but I knew in my heart that it needed to happen, for my own sanity and for my love of what started it all…The Surfboard.

So now, after almost 50 years working in the surf industry, I have my own store and I continue to make sure that I always have the best equipment available. My commitment to surfing has never been stronger and I couldn’t be more thankful to be where I am today.  I continue to meet new people on a daily basis and learn more about how to cater the business to what my customers want, and most of all, I enjoy giving back to the surf community which has given me so much.

Thank you all and Best Regards,

Bird

 

 

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