Harbour makes the claim that their Seal Beach shop is the world’s oldest continually operating board manufacturing location.
Rich Harbour, the name behind the brand, started shaping boards back in 1959 so no matter the validity of their historical claim, they play a major role in California surf history.
Today the shop has artifacts scattered around the walls, on shelves, and hanging from the ceiling. It also has new boards on the racks, being shaped in the back, and available online. The place is not a museum but a functioning shop.
It is crowded with tourists and surfers, the two not being mutually exclusive, parking is tight, but you should visit.
A Kook is, but is not only, a person who is bad at surfing.
There are a million ways and reasons to be bad at surfing, but one of the kookiest, is to have no clue as to what you are doing wrong.
Perhaps the most kooky thing, is to make no effort to learn what one is doing wrong, yet continue surfing.
I am a kook.
I don’t want to be one, but there is so much I don’t know, that it will take a lifetime for me to get half a clue. That is my best-case scenario; one half clue.
I’m putting in an honest effort but there are obstacles.
I’m not a real athlete, I’m more of a beast. In other words I’m more made for smashing and lifting than I am for balancing or doing anything at a high speed. Or a medium speed. Or anything involving the word speed.
2. I need to lose 50 pounds. I require a lot of buoyancy to counteract my displacement to equal gravitational force. In other words, It takes a lot to make me float. Maximum displacement does not improve surfing. But more than that, surfing requires a lot of paddling and other things that resemble physical activity and at least 50 pounds of me are in no way helping. Those 50 pounds are the guy who lives on the couch, eats from your fridge, but doesn’t pay bills.
3. I live in Rancho Kookamonga. Kook is in the name of the place. No, it is not really spelled that way, and no, the word itself isn’t REALLY the problem, but the geography is. I am at least an hour away from the beach with no traffic. Everywhere in California has traffic, and gas is expensive.
4. Money. It would be nice if I had more money, or if things related to me surfing didn’t cost as much money. I’d be happy with either solution, but as it stands gas, road tolls, wetsuits, surfboards, and TIME are prohibitively expensive. I have found ways to scrounge out some time (for now), tolls come in small bite sized chunks, but that board. I currently ride on the homemade generosity of an older board that has been beat up almost as much as me, it weighs as much as me, and while it currently helps get my oversized self upright on a wave, it pretty much only allows that. And I’m not sure how much longer it can handle this one job. Surfboards, the ones big enough for me, are expensive.
5. I’m getting old. Not just older, but I am solidly closer to old than young. I make friends with retired people. There are things my body could once do, that it no longer can, and when I try it hurts. Things always hurt. It doesn’t matter what I do, the pain just sort of shifts around depending on the activity.
6. Excuses. The idea that the board, or my geography, or the tides, are why I’m not a good surfer, are excuses that don’t really hold water (though unfortunately the board does indeed take on water). I should just eat less. I should find ways to earn, or save, more money. Eating less might help that. I think if I ate less I could be more of an athlete. I have known these aforementioned things long enough to have done something about them yet this list remains up to date.
But mostly I just want a new board. A magical one. One that would make me better.
And that is why I am a kook.
Because of 1 through 6, plus this last bit…
I intend to persist.
I can’t help it. I’m stuck. I’m snakebit. I’m stoked. Addicted. Hooked. I’m no good at it and it is still fun. It is fun every time. It is hard every time and once I think I have improved, something proves me wrong.
And I have fun.
So I will be there this Saturday morning as the sun comes up. I will be trying to get better but battleships are hard to turn even when they have an able Captain.
Brian Bent is not pretending or acting. He is what, and whom, he presents himself to be. And he is great.
What he presents, is a hot-rodding rockabilly surfer circa 1968, or maybe 1953, I can’t pin down exactly when. You can find images of him all over the internet riding a checkered surfboard while wearing a striped shirt and captain’s cap, ya know, like the one Thurston Howell III wore on Gilligan’s Island.
The pics look great. But what is even better, is that on any given day you can easily run into Brian out in the lineup at Doheny or San Onofre, and he will look exactly like he does in those photos, and he will ride that log for all its worth. He can surf.
When he is done he will haul that log into the parking lot, load it onto a homemade hot rod, and head home to paint.
His paintings are what first caught my attention.
People have been paying attention to his art for decades. He is not new. His work is a loose mix of what appears to be fashion illustration, shapes, and storytelling. He renders spindly stylized characters like you might imagine would exist if Jack Skellington targeted the world of Gidget. He made a splash back in the 80’s when he was designing the interiors of the Becker surf shops and his work was eventually picked up by galleries. He has been and still is, producing.
Producing as in continually creating. Making. All sorts of stuff.
I met Brian as he and his wife were headed from the beach back to their car. I was (still am) just some soggy kook in a wetsuit hollering “Hey Brian” and they stopped and graciously listened as I told Brian I loved his art. He was gracious. They were nice.
Then last weekend he opened up his home for a “garage sale” and Mrs. Hammas and I went to check it out. The Bents were exactly as they appeared at the beach, super gracious, and their home is the best representation of a stylized life I have ever seen. They execute a designed life to perfection.
In front of their modest sized house is a teal, tailfinned car with anchors painted on the cab, then three steel home-made hot rods, and of course all the vehicles are outfitted to carry a surf board. In the garage are tools upon tools and a quiver of hand painted longboards next to a pile of banged up single tailed skateboards.
The house is a collection of mid-mod vignettes made up of furniture, instruments, and art. Skatalites played on a record player, easy going people not wearing shoes milled about the kitchen, and the Bents appeared sincerely happy we were there. They showed us around, shared a bit about their life, and went out of their way to make us feel comfortable.
And I was. Thanks to them.
This comfort came largely from the Bent’s authenticity. The 60’s, or 40’s for that matter, are long gone and most of us do not dress or design a life like the Bent’s so it might be natural to assume they might be a little… weird. Or act eccentric. But they don’t. They are, again, normal. In the best possible way. In the way that makes a person a real person rather than a performance. In a way that makes Brian a master of style rather than a relic.
Brian is not living in the past, he is living in style.
In 1961, back in the days of Gidget and the Endless Summer, a seamstress named Carrie Birdwell Mann started making and selling swimshorts at her Orange County home. More than 50 years later the company is still in O.C. making pretty much the same thing, and for the most part- only that one thing.
We call them boardshorts. The world knows about boardshorts thanks to Old Navy and Target, but surfers know about boardshorts largely thanks to Birdwell. Mrs. Mann invented the shorts specifically for them.
Not to take away from what Quiksilver, O’neill, or any other surf brand have accomplished, but when it comes to boardshorts, Birdwell is what all of them are trying to be.
Like any responsible adult, the folks at the factory were a little leary of me when I showed up asking questions. But once they determined that, as they put it, “wasn’t up to any weird @*!!” they were more than happy to show me around.The family sold off the business, or as the current owners say “entrusted” them in 2014. Since then, a couple things have changed, while some other significant things have not.
For instance, they started using actual patters.While this may have removed some whimsy from the whole purchasing experience, it did make predicting if the shorts were going to fit a little more reliable.
They also updated the van.And by updated I mean they painted it not fixed the engine, which is why I found it parked comfortably in the factory parking lot.
What they didn’t change were the people working the floor. They have remarkably low turnover and most of the folks sewing the shorts today, are the same folks who sewed them ten years ago.
This might be in part an explanation for what else hasn’t changed, which is that these shorts are nearly bomb proof. I think these shorts are what the authorities use to identify the victims of shark attacks since the shorts are what always survive.
*I said that not them*
It is interesting that in our modern world of fast fashion and quarterly shareholder returns, there can exist a company and brand that survives without attempting to broaden offerings in order to capture market share or lowering quality to widen the margin and spur more turns.
They didn’t do that and they are still right there.
Like I said before, I don’t surf.
But if taking steps past big box mass retail is a sign- I might be on my way.