Foam Surfboard Pioneer to Close Shop

Gordon "Grubby" Clark, along with surfing legend Hobie Alter, invented the modern foam surfboard. When Clark announced earlier this month that he plans to shut down his 44-year-old business making foam blanks for surfboards, the news sent shockwaves through the surfing community.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Surfers were stunned and more than a little bummed. Last week the Southern California man who pioneered the mass production of surfboards announced that he was closing shop. Gordon "Grubby" Clark of Clark Foam supplied an estimated 90 percent of the polyurethane foam used to make surfboards around the world. Gloria Hillard reports on the shock wave that Clark's departure has created.

GLORIA HILLARD reporting:

For Matt Nichol, a young surfer wiggling into a wet suit, the big news that this popular surf beach in San Clemente, California, was the waves were picking up and...

MATT NICHOL (Surfer): Oh, Clark Foam. It's all over the place, school, everywhere, just the shutting down of it. Kids are talking about it. And, I mean, that's even in junior high--there's just a ton of kids talking about that.

HILLARD: And about a mile away, just over the crest of multimillion-dollar, ocean-view homes, is what they call the surf ghetto, an industrial cluster of surfboard artisans and manufacturers. Here a strong chemical smell spilled out of a Fiberglas warehouse, as did a heated discussion with owner Paul Burton and some of his workers.

Unidentified Man #1: Trying to figure it all out.

Unidentified Man #2: It took like a day to set in really.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: It's kinda like, `Ah, this isn't real.'

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: I mean, how could the whole rug be pulled out from underneath us in one day?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

(Soundbite of door planer)

HILLARD: In this nearby warehouse, a shaper is using a door planer to transform an oval piece of foam, the product produced by Clark foam, into a surfboard.

Mr. MATT BIOLOS (Owner, Lost Surfboards): It's basically sculpture. We sculpt a raw chunk, you know, of foam into a really beautiful, glass slipper-type item for surfing on.

HILLARD: Matt Biolos is the head shaper and owner of Lost Surfboards. Since starting his business, Clark Foam, located just up the freeway, delivered the in-the-rough surfboard shapes to his doorstep. Biolos says Clark Foam's closing has been a wake-up call.

Mr. BIOLOS: Basically it's like Daddy kicked us all out of the house to go and run our own businesses and...

HILLARD: Because you relied on this company? Is that it?

Mr. BIOLOS: Everybody relied on Gordon. Like, we were just, yeah, his children.

HILLARD: Larger surfboard manufacturers, like Biolos' company, will now be looking to foreign sources for their raw material, like Brazil, South Africa and Asia. For smaller shapers, like Tim Patterson, who produces 200 custom-made boards a month, there is more uncertainty.

Mr. TIM PATTERSON (Surfboard Shaper): It's crazy for us, nuts, you know. So we're a little worried about our futures, but we'll overcome it definitely.

HILLARD: It's a global surfing world these days. In Manchester, England, at Harpoon Louie's surf shop, owner Oliver Monk(ph) says it's been all the gossip of late.

Mr. OLIVER MONK (Harpoon Louie's Surf Shop): Yeah, quite shocked really. No one can understand why. Well, I could pretty much--to my mind, it's the Rolls-Royce of surfboard blanks, you know. It's--they were head and shoulders above the rest. So, you know, it's a great shame that they're not going to be making any more.

HILLARD: In explaining his decision to close down, company founder Gordon "Grubby" Clark sent out a seven-page letter to his customers citing pressure from local, state and federal regulators over environmental and safety compliances.

Overlooking the ocean, Chris Mauro, the editor of Surfer Magazine, says the abrupt closing seems in keeping with the 72-year-old's renegade persona. In 1961, Clark started the business with Hobie Alter of Hobie Cat fame.

Mr. CHRIS MAURO (Editor, Surfer Magazine): Grubby ended up taking it over and running with it. He's very much a genius. He's kind of like a Howard Hughes in a way.

HILLARD: It was not just manufacturers but retailers reacting to the closing. Damon Richards, whose family has owned Val Surf, a surf shop in Los Angeles, for over 40 years, says he's had to raise his board prices from 50 to $150 in response to manufacturers' increases.

Mr. DAMON RICHARDS (Val Surf): There's been a pretty heavy frenzy. People have been coming in and wanting to buy multiple boards, thinking that the value of the boards are going to go up astronomically and become collectors' items.

HILLARD: Back at the famed T Street Beach in San Clemente, 15-year-old Cassie Bartenstein(ph), a board tucked under her arm, was taking the news all in stride.

CASSIE BARTENSTEIN (Surfer): Clark Foam shutting down's a big issue, but I'm sure the surfer world will make it through it.

HILLARD: And helping them through it: another perfect surf day in Southern California, as the sun started to set reflecting a brilliant orange over perfect waves. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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