The surfing industry has seen drastic changes over the years, from pop out surfboards and longboards to short boards and the rise of female surfers. AB Surf Shop has been around through every wave and new fad and is still going strong after 50 years. The once-small surf shop, originally built to fill a void in the market, was started by Tommy Morrow and continues to be a family business with sons Johnny and Chuck now handling the management.
Tommy said that when surfing first came to the east coast, he and two other friends talked Charles Hill of CM Hill Hardware in Newport into ordering three pop out surfboards for them. He explained that back then, surfboard companies had dealers in Western Auto and hardware stores because that’s where a lot of sporting goods were sold at the time. Tommy was around 14 when he and his friends got their first surfboards.
But with summer comes tourists. That summer, he and his friends met two boys from Virginia Beach who had custom surfboards. “They rode better, they were a lot prettier, they were handmade, just stuff we’d never seen before or even thought about,” he explained.
The nearest surf shops at the time were in Cocoa Beach, Fla, and Virginia Beach, Va. Tommy started saving up money and asked his dad if he would take him to Virginia Beach to buy a custom surfboard.
“I said, ‘I can sell my pop out for what I got in it, because supply and demand.’ People saw us surfing so they wanted to surf too, and it started growing. He took me up there and I bought a custom surfboard. Of course you know all my buddies wanted to ride it,” he added.
The next spring, surfboards began changing again. Tommy explained that they went from wood to fiberglass and foam and designers were experimenting with different kinds of fins and shapes . So when the new models came out, he asked his dad to take him back to Virginia Beach to buy a new one.
“He said, ‘You just got one.’ I said, ‘I know, but there’s this new shape out and I can sell my board for more than I paid for it.’ He said, ‘You can?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ because there just weren’t any. So he said, ‘Why don’t you just start selling them?’”
If ever there was a defining moment, it was there. It was then, Tommy said, that AB Surf Shop was truly born. Tommy’s dad told him that he’d lend him $1,000, and that Tommy should find two partners that will also put in $1,000. So Tommy found his two partners, and they started AB Surf Shop with only $3,000. The whole inventory consisted of 10 Hansen surfboards and two dozen men’s surf trunks. Eventually his oldest partner joined the US Army so Tommy and his remaining partner bought him out. Later his remaining partner lost interest, so Tommy bought him out, too.
He has seen 50 years and five different locations, all within five blocks of the current building.
“The first location, people don’t even know about because it was just so … I don’t even think we had a sign out front, to tell you the truth. We were there for a short period. The one people initially know about is on the other side of the stoplight on East Fort Macon Road. I was there until 1971.”
In 1971, he moved to the land across the street from where the store is now. “There was a Fast Fare, like a 7-11. I was right next to them. I was there from 1971 until 1982. Then we remodeled the store in 1989-1990. We remodeled about every 10 years, and then seven years ago we doubled the size of it. There where I’ve been all those years.”
Back when they first started surfing, the group would just pull off to the side of the road anywhere from Atlantic Beach to Emerald Isle to go surfing. There were seven surfing piers at that time, and Tommy explained that the piers create waves, and that’s why all the surfers wanted to surf at the fishing piers. In the 1960s, there were only a handful of people surfing here. Then surfboards started changing again.
“Surfboards started going from longboards to progressively down, about a foot at a time, pretty quickly. They got them all the way down to where I didn’t have a surfboard in the store over six feet. In the 1970s, it went through a whole bunch of different designs. Anything that people could imagine that would plane out, that would work in the water, we were trying it. It was just a crazy time for surfboard designs.”
That wasn’t a good time for beginner surfers, he continued. The shorter the board, the harder it is to ride. They didn’t really have anything to offer a kid that was just beginning. The industry wasn’t good for a beginner at that point.
There was another distinct point where the surfing industry changed, as well as AB Surf Shop’s clientele.
“There was a surf movie that came out, “Blue Crush,” that just set girls on fire. That was a whole new market for us because a few girls surfed, but not many. At that time, longboarding came back. So here we are, we have longboards, we have shortboards and now we have mid-range boards which came in fun shapes and were the easiest to learn on. So it opened up this door for these new people coming into surfing. We could fit this customer with exactly what he or she needed, size wise, so that it would be easy to paddle, easy to ride and have fun. That’s what surfing’s about.”
When girls got into surfing, 50 percent of the store’s surfboard sales were going to women. That got dads interested in it, and the whole family started surfing.
“In the 1960s, I sold surfboards to guys that never put them in the water. They put them on their car because surfing, at that time, was really cool. There were a bunch of surf movies that, you know, weren’t surf movies, they were lifestyle movies. They weren’t really how surfers were. It was Hollywood’s version. People just wanted to be associated with it. We were kind of rebels. What was cool was when I worked at the store, I’d wear corduroy Levi’s, that was the thing surfers wore, and T-shirts. I wouldn’t be caught dead at Morehead City High School without a pair of khakis and a starched shirt on. It was that much different. It was a whole different lifestyle that had come from California and people really wanted to be a part of it. That started the clothing thing,” Tommy said.
Looking back on the history of the store, Tommy said he wouldn’t change a thing, that it’s like a dream come true. The last expansion in 2007 and when his sons took over were important times for the company, he added. Tommy said it is his life’s dream to have his family continue with the store.
Tommy’s sons, Chuck and Johnny, grew up in the store, and knew that they would come back. Johnny said when he was growing up, he would ride to work with his dad, then take his surfboard, head to the beach and surf all day. When his dad was done with work, he would pick Johnny up and they would go home.
“It’s always been here, we know nothing else really. Both of us went off to school and stuff like that. Retail business, I guess, is like the restaurant business – your family is a part of it and you’re always doing something with it. We always knew that we’d come back. We did different things, but I knew I was always going to come back here, be a part of the family business,” Johnny continued.
The boys started working in the store early – around the age of 12.
“I would come in and watch for shoplifters, sweep the parking lot, pick gum out of the parking lot, cigarette butts, wash the windows,” Chuck explained. “We used to have a ton of windows, so we used to wash the windows. That was my job when I was 12. Every Friday I’d come over and do that. We don’t really know any different.”
The store has changed over the years from a surf shop to a combined surf shop and boutique, Johnny explained.
“We have changed to not slow down in slow times. The hardcore surf industry has ups and downs. It’s in a down right now, it’s not a good time for the surf industry at all, but our business is growing because we’re so diversified. We diversified our store really to accommodate our customer’s needs and what they want to see in a retail store at the beach,” added Chuck.
Johnny and Chuck both have children, but they’re too young to really be involved in the store just yet. But Johnny said he’d love to have them take over eventually to keep the business in the family.
“I think Johnny and I are extremely grateful for what our dad has started for us, and gave us the opportunity to take the ball and run with it. The greatest gift a parent can ever give a child, I would say. We’re thankful every day that we have this opportunity and this legacy to continue.”