While sports, life, and style have been around for a while, the “sports lifestyle” as a distinct market is a mere half-century old. Like much else of cultural import in the years since World War II, this niche is the product of the human laboratory we call California, and specifically of its coastline. Surfing is enjoying (or despising, depending on your perspective) one of its periodic peaks in the general consciousness, which makes it appropriate to look back the five decades to the moment when the sport broke free of its cult status and became the urtext of athletic sports retailing. The publication of Gidget in 1957 did not just introduce us to the barely fictionalized account of a girl’s summer in Malibu; it started a chain reaction that introduced surfing to the rest of the country and spread it to the world at large. The novel was licensed for three hit movies, and later made into numerous television shows. Within a few years, the Beach Boys, woodies, hangin’ ten, and board shorts were as popular in Kansas City as Santa Cruz.
The thing to remember is that, since 1957, surfing as something you buy has overshadowed surfing as something you do. I would hazard that no other activity has ever generated as many products among people who neither know how to do it, nor follow those who do. The archetypal surfer might be a sun-bleached, vacant eyed, deracinated beach boy, but there are deeper stories beneath surfing’s glossy surface. Like Los Angeles, surfing often seems to be outside the realm of history, trapped in a permanent present. In this story, though, noir eclipses sunshine; high culture paves the way for low commerce; utopia inspires and disappoints in equal measure; and the surf shops of Huntington Beach owe an unacknowledged debt to the sweet scents of Viennese coffee houses.
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