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#1 // NEIGHBORLY BUSINESS :: AN HOMAGE TO HOBIE ALTER

Blog, Juicy Roots
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Hobie Alter Circa 1961 in front of the Hobie shop on Kapiolani Boulevard in Waikiki – right next door to where Lightning Bolt established its first retail shop in September of 1970. Photo courtesy Dick Metz.

In 1961 Hobie Alter and Dick Metz jumped on a DC 4 and flew to Honolulu, where Alter hatched the idea of opening a Hobie retail shop in the Hawaiian Islands. Dick Metz thought that was a great idea until Hobie made Metz an offer he tried to refuse: “And Hobie said to me – I wasn’t planning on staying – he said, ‘You’ve gotta stay over here and we’re going to open a shop.’

And I said, ‘Hobie I don’t know how to run a shop.’ But I had run a liquor store and all that so he figured I could figure it out. So Hobie went home and I stayed over there and started selling surfboards. This was at 1475 Kapiolani Boulevard, right in front of the Ala Moana Shopping Center.”

The Hobie shop in Hawaii sold only surfboards, decals and patching kits. Hawaiians weren’t interested in “Hobie Dana Point” t-shirts – they probably read them as “Haole Dana Point” – so Metz went to the Chinese silk-screener in Honolulu to order “Hobie Honolulu” t-shirts. Those t-shirts sold like hotcakes – like hot manapua: “That was the first clothing item we had in a retail store – and the store in Honolulu was the first purely retail store,” Metz said. “Everybody in Hawaii wanted them and then everybody who came to Hawaii wanted to bring them back to the mainland because that was another badge you had been to Hawaii.”

There were already surfboard manufacturers in Hawaii, but the mainland Hobie boards were cool and popular: “I bought the boards wholesale and marked them up,” Metz said. “And that’s when the price of boards went from $85 to a hundred [multiply that by 7.57 for modern dollars]. Hobie sold them to me for $80 and I could make twenty bucks for selling them. We were selling a lot of surfboards and it was really worth doing.”

It was so worth doing, all the other California surfing labels wanted to get involved: Weber, Bing, Greg Noll, Hansen and G and S all wanted an outlet in Hawaii. That was competition for Hobie, so Dick Metz busted out his Monopoly skills: “I knew them all and they all wanted me to do it but I couldn’t because I was already the Hobie guy in Hawaii,” Metz said. “When I realized they were going to get other guys to be my competition, I came over to the mainland to see Bing and Hansen and Weber and got their dealership. I went back to Honolulu and we opened a Surfline Hawaii retail store that then was the dealer for all the other surfboard makers.  I was still with Hobie but nobody knew I owned Surfline Hawaii because they all thought I was the Hobie guy.”

Alter Hobie

Hobie boardbuilding out of the garage – 1953. Photo courtesy of encyclopediaofsurfing.com

And what did Hobie think about this? “He didn’t care as long as I sold only Hobies out of the Hobie store,” Metz said. “Hobie knew that competition was going to happen, so it was better to have me own the competition then have the other guys be competing against me. This way I ran both stores but no one knew and I could compete with it better by owning it than not owning it.”

Randy Rarick earned pocket money doing ding repair in the Hobie Shop as a keiki and has fond memories: “If I recall correctly (and that was a looooong time ago), I think the Hobie Shop opened in 1962.  I remember being 12 years old and peering in the window, as they were setting it up.  It was also before they showed the 1963 high school version of The Endless Summer. I passed out posters for that, before it hit the theater circuit and I remember Bruce Brown hanging out at the Hobie Shop.”

Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing had this to say about the genesis of Lightning Bolt:

In 1969, Lopez and Bolt co-founder Jack Shipley were both working the showroom at Surf Line Hawaii, in Honolulu. Lopez was also riding for Hansen Surfboards. In late 1969, Hansen introduced the ‘Lopez Series,’ a diamond-tail semigun that was Bolt-free. Then a few months later Hansen came out with their weird ‘Stratoglas’ line of boards, which were hollow and molded – among these was the Lightning Bolt model, advertised as a “spacey, narrow delight” shaped by Lopez. At the same time, Lopez was also using his own non-Hansen boards, made under the brand spanking new Lightning Bolt label.

The transition to Bolt began with John Paul Shipley – aka Jack Shipley. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, his father worked for what is now Martin-Marietta Corporation as a tech rep for their Air Force bombers. The family moved every three years but when they got to Hawaii in 1961, they stayed.

According to Randy Rarick: “Jack Shipley came over from the East Coast and worked as a salesman for Metz in the mid-60’s before moving down to Surf Line Hawaii. Metz set up Dave Rochlen with the Surf Line Hawaii shop, so he could sell all the other mainland labels. That would have been around ’63/’64, but I could find out exactly when they opened from Pua Rochlen, his son. The Hobie shop was around until Shipley and Lopez left Surf Line to start Lightning Bolt.  With the changeover to short boards, Hobie’s became passé and the Bolt label took off.”

According to Jack Shipley, “Gerry and I worked together at Surfline and agreed that we could run our own shop in 1969 – we worked out a partnership and in ‘70 we got it going. We had a different concept about running a business and wanted to give it a try. An easy move as no one believed the Bolt would be a factor in the surfing world: $2,500 cash from me [x 6 in modern dollars] and the same monetary amount of labor from Gerry. Clearly we needed to be successful right away. Design was changing rapidly and Gerry’s friends and fellow shapers were leading the charge and responding to our presentation to the public.”

Lightning Bolt opened for business September 1, 1970, in one of the store fronts next to the Hobie Shop.

Hobart “Hobie” Alter passed away on March 29, 2014 – after a five-year battle with cancer. Tributes to Hobie rang out from across the country and around the world, testifying to the influence of one man who is on the Mount Rushmore of surf industry pioneers. Hobie was influential in balsa surfboards, the transition to foam and fiberglass, surf shops, mass production, surfboard design, retail, clothing, marketing, skateboards – there is no facet of the surfing world that doesn’t have some flavor of Hobie. The genesis of the Lightning Bolt shop from Hobie surfboards is a lesser-known facet, but one of many. Hobie lived a good, long, productive life during what Miki Dora called “The Golden Years” of surfing.

Hobie’s friends and family miss him, but Hobie was a fortunate man and if that fortune continues, heaven is California and Hawaii in the 1950s.

Juicy Roots is brought to us by contributing writer Ben Marcus