By Sam Laird
Last Thursday, dozens of customers lined up at the door of Noland’s on the Wharf, a local swim and sportswear shop, clamoring to be among the last to buy T-shirts depicting a surfer catching a wave amidst the words declaring Santa Cruz, "Surf City, USA."
The shirts were popular not because of their stylish design or soft fabric, but because in less than 10 hours they would become illegal for purchase.
Recently, Noland’s found itself in the middle of the latest bizarre twist in the longstanding rivalry between Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach over which town is the real "Surf City, USA." Last May, Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau (HBCVB) announced that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had granted it exclusive rights to the "Surf City, USA" phrase for use in promoting commerce, tourism, and merchandise for the Southern California town.
Almost immediately, the story became a media sensation, gaining coverage in papers from New York to New Zealand.
"We’d had this shirt for a year," said Bruce Noland, 48, owner of Noland’s on the Wharf. "Then, a couple weeks ago, we got a letter from Huntington Beach’s lawyers saying that we had until midnight on Sept. 28 to stop selling the shirts or else we’d face an injunction." Noland and his mother Ginger run the store that his grandparents started in 1960.
Ironically, the ultimatum prompted a temporary swell in business for the beachwear shop.
"We first got the shirts in September of 2005," Ginger Noland said. "In the year since then we had sold about 300 of them. Then, when the news of the cease-and-desist order broke, we sold 85 within an hour."
Nonetheless, the HBCVB’s trademark of the "Surf City, USA" phrase and its subsequent legal power play against Noland’s has been humbling for the store’s owners.
"When we received the letter my first reaction was fear, because it could’ve involved a lawsuit," Ginger Noland said. "My second feeling was sadness, because something Santa Cruz has been known as for so long was taken from us."
Jesse Shank, who has lived and surfed in Santa Cruz for 26 years, believes he represents the feelings of many locals.
"The trademark was pretty lame and going after the T-shirt was overkill and unnecessary," said Shank, who works at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. "We are the original Surf City and they can’t take that away from us. Everyone knows we have the better surf," Shank said. "A lot of people from down south come up here to surf, but I don’t see anyone from up here heading down there to look for waves."
According to Doug Traub, President of the HBCVB, the move against Noland’s wasn’t personal, but simply part of the reality of doing business in the 21st century.
"We have laws of commerce in this country that have been created to protect people who make investments and products," Traub said. "We invested in the Surf City, USA brand, and these laws are protecting our investment. Some people may have thought of Santa Cruz by this name, but it has never been used for promotional purposes."
Christina Glynn, communications president for the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council, believes the whole episode may be due to differences in Northern and Southern California business mentalities.
"Southern California is an area that has really mastered the art of the attraction; they have Disneyland, Universal Studios, and now Surf City, USA, which is being marketed as another attraction. In Santa Cruz you’ll find an experience that is more authentic and more about the sport of surfing itself," Glynn said.
Glynn added, "Huntington Beach is spending $75,000 over the next year specifically to chase down businesses that infringe on the Surf City trademark . . . It’s unfortunate they’ve chosen to go after a family-run business, but my guess is Noland’s is just the first of many."