Dale Velzy is widely considered to have founded the first ever surf shop in Manhattan Beach, Calif. in 1950. A group of surfers and historians have set out to have a commemorative bronze plaque placed at the former site of the shop to celebrate that legacy, but the project has been met with controversy over the validity of their claim.
Dale Velzy was a master shaper, who began creating surfboards in the mid 1940s and was a key figure in the rise of surfing culture in California after World War II. The pioneer had humble beginnings, initially shaping his wooden boards under the Hermosa Pier. However, “he was leaving shavings all over the sand and the (police) got mad and kicked him out,” said Jackie May, who has spent years collecting the history of the shop. “The carvings were blowing all the way to Highland. He decided to go and use that abandoned building. That’s how the shop started.” In 1950, Velzy opened Velzy Surfboards at 117 Manhattan Beach Blvd., where he shaped and sold boards.
“There would be no surf business without Dale Velzy, and hence no surf life as we know it,” reads a 2005 profile in SURFER, published after Velzy’s death, “He was the first to put a name on a surfboard, the first to sponsor a surfer, the first to open a surf shop and the first to print a surf company t-shirt.”
For the past 10 years, Jackie May, along with Bing Copeland, Roy Bream, Matt Velzy and Chip Post, have been endeavoring to have a commemorative plaque erected at the site where Dale Velzy’s surf shop once stood. The plaque, to be installed in the cement outside the Strand House, would have a simple message: “Dale Hawk Velzy opened the world’s first known surf shop on this site in 1950.”
However, the proposal was met with swift opposition. Former Manhattan Beach Historical Society president Gary McAulay raised concerns over the validity of the claim at a Manhattan Beach City Council meeting. “We have no documentation as far as we know,” said McAuley. “I think it might be disputed, so please take care exactly what we cast in bronze for another of Manhattan Beach’s historical plaques.”
Later, he doubled down on the claim, writing in The Beach Reporter that “Dale Velzy deserves recognition as a respected surfer and an innovative shaper. But, to claim the ‘worlds first known surf shop’ requires 1) a license, or photos or advertising of an actual store, and 2) a verifiable date, not a range of dates. Without some documenting proof, any such claim is an empty boast, a legend of conflicting stories relying on emotion and popular appeal, an unsubstantiated myth.”
“My interest in the Velzy plaque is ensuring that City-endorsed plaques placed on public property are historically accurate,” McAulay told me via email, “Big claims take big research and warrant a high level of substantiation. First man on the moon is nailed down, but so many other historical firsts are contested endlessly. There are many aspects to Velzy’s story, not the least of which is that Velzy seems to be well-known for his own embellishments. Certainly, commemorate Velzy for the surfing legend that he is. But for the plaque, verify and prove any historical aspects before casting them in bronze. ”
Though the council had initially approved the plaque, criticism from McAulay and others at the Manhattan Beach Historical society “put some doubts in the minds of the Manhattan Beach City Council members,” said Tom Horton of the South Bay Boardriders Club, which became involved in the campaign to install the plaque around a year ago. As a result, the council took a step back from their decision and asked to see more evidence to support the claim.
“What we have are eyewitnesses and historians like the California Surf Museum and Encyclopedia of Surfing, that support it,” continued Tom, “there’s nothing written that we know of, but everyone knows it as the world’s first surf shop.”
To that end, South Bay Boardriders has amassed a host of supporters to the claim, including The Surfers Journal, The Encyclopedia of Surfing, L.A. County Lifeguard Association Trust Fund and Catalina Classic Paddle Board Association, as well as friends of Velzy and eyewitnesses who went to the shop.
Jane Schmauss, a historian at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside wrote a letter of support as well. “Dale Velzy is a huge name in surfing and his contributions to the sport are monumental. He was a charismatic, capable, innovative entrepreneur who opened the world’s first surfboard shop in 1950 – at 117 Manhattan Beach Boulevard.” She went on to write, “Velzy started making boards even before California’s surf craze began to catch fire in the late 1950s, and his shop was one of the few outlets where designs were tinkered with and produced by a small number of talented craftsmen.”
For his part, Bing Copeland, a master shaper and founder of Bing Surfboards, one of the best-known brands throughout the ’60s and into the ’70s, remembered not only Velzy’s contributions to surfing as a business, but as a mentor in the surfing community. Velzy was the first one to introduce Bing to surfing and later took him on as a shop assistant. “Velzy just kind of took me under his wing,” he recalled. “I would cut template shapes for him, sand boards, repair boards, and just hang around the shop. It meant everything to me. There weren’t any surf shops. There might have been some backyard things and some garage things, maybe some industrial buildings that boards were built in, but that was the very first known retail surf shop.”
Bing credited Velzy not only with setting him on the path to become a shaper himself, but also teaching him about life. “He was my mentor in the business, and really kind of like a second dad.”
The Manhattan Beach City Council meets on June 6, where the proponents of the plaque will once again present their claims. The South Bay Boardriders club asks that those who support the installation of the plaque email the City Council of Manhattan Beach, here, supporting Bing, Chip, Roy, Matt and Jackie’s statements that Dale Velzy opened the world’s first known surf shop.