The doors of the surf shop are wide open, letting the crisp ocean air waft around the building. In the center of the room are a dozen colorful surfboards, set back-to-back in a row. Walking through the sandy entryway, shoppers are greeted by a sea of drying wetsuits and employees ready to answer any question.
Every year, people come from all over the world to surf in Santa Cruz. For over 20 years, Cowell’s Surf Shop, a local family-owned store, has attracted countless people excited to try their hand at surfing, a Santa Cruz staple.
“You have a lot of people here who not only love surfing, but who are absolutely passionate about the history,” Jane McKenzie, the president of the Santa Cruz Longboard Union, a local not-for-profit surf club, told The Mercury News. “When you sit in the ocean, it’s a much different experience than standing on a cliff and looking at it. Even watching the sunset is different.”
The surfing community at Santa Cruz was started in 1885, when three Hawaiian princes vacationing in Santa Cruz convinced a local lumber mill to make surfboards from redwood logs. The next wave of Santa Cruz surfing popularity came in the ‘50s, when late surf legend and creator of the wetsuit Jack O’Neill moved here.
A Long History
Pete and Kathy Pappas opened Cowell’s Surf Shop in 1988 to replace the family auto shop that burned down. The shop has stayed in the family for more than 30 years, now owned by Pete and Kathy’s son Robby.
Robby grew up watching his parents run the store and remembers not wanting to work there as a child because of how busy his parents were, but earned an appreciation for it as he grew up.
“You take it for granted. I don’t know how it would be to not own a surf shop and not have this beautiful corner down here, right in the middle of Santa Cruz,” Pappas said. “I’ve been down here my whole life.”
As a child, Robby would wait with his brother at Cowell’s Beach for their parents to get off work. He remembers summers when his father would not take any days off from working at the store. His mother would do behind-the-scenes work like filing taxes.
Robby remembers his father wanting to provide an opportunity for all people to come and surf in Santa Cruz, even if they were new to the area or sport.
“I used to teach [surf] lessons, me and my brother,” Robby said. “That’s one of my favorite memories is just how stoked people get when we would take them out surfing. I think a lot of surf shops don’t approach it like that. They’re more like a ‘surfing for locals only’ vibe.”
Finding Its Wave Through The Pandemic
Although several coastal communities had to close beaches and other tourist attractions, Cowell’s Surf Shop has continued to provide for their customers this past year.
Surfing was one of the only activities permitted during the shelter-in-place order in Santa Cruz. Nathan Crawford, who’s been working at the shop since 2012, moved to Los Angeles to take care of his family during the pandemic, but is back and impressed with the shop’s success despite COVID-19 regulations.
“The waves keep going, even through the pandemic,” Crawford said. “People still want to get out there, and it’s good.”
With its new sanitary stations, Cowell’s Surf Shop has been able to provide surfboard and wetsuit rentals, get the saltwater out of its gear, and keep everyone safe.
Robby said there has been a significant increase in the number of people at his shop who have taken up surfing during the pandemic. Now that California’s COVID-19 positivity rate has fallen to its lowest level in a year, at under two percent, Robby predicts there will be even more surfers in the water.
“We’re not your typical local shop, we really strive to give people the opportunity who haven’t surfed, and don’t really know about surfing, to come in here and get comfortable with not knowing,” said Robby. “[Cowell’s Surf Shop] really strives to give that beginner the opportunity to go out there and educate them and tell them where they can go and stuff like that.”
Looking Toward The Future
Cowell’s Surf Shop has always been open to newcomers, but hopes to build a lasting customer base like Pete did in the store’s early years. Pete assembled his own entourage during his time as owner, and many people return to Cowell’s after years of learning and shopping there.
While Pete and Robby run the store differently, their dedication to customers remains the same.
“I’m a lot different than my dad. He’s a man of very few words,” said Robby. “I really like to enhance that customer satisfaction, make the customer stoked, and I want to get as many people out there as safely as I can.”
Robby hopes that customers will remember him like they do his father. UC Santa Cruz second-year and frequent customer Hunter Bowersmith’s first surfing experience was improved by the shop’s welcoming energy and acceptance of newcomers.
“The staff was very accommodating in being able to help me have the best first surfing experience possible,” said Bowersmith. “Relieving any anxieties that I had about surfing and answering all the questions I had about where to surf, how, and when.”
Working with new customers like Bowersmith is what Crawford says is his favorite part of the job. During the busy times, shifts go by faster for him when he’s helping a customer.
At the shop, he has learned a lot from the Pappas family — from learning how to repair surfboards to gaining valuable knowledge like the fundamental rules of surfing.
“I’ve seen [the shop] evolve over the years, it just doesn’t get boring,” said Crawford. “It’s always poppin’ down here, especially on the corner right here. It’s a sight to see because it’s just amazing and you see it all happen before your eyes.”
Cowell’s Surf Shop is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 30 Front St. For more information click here.