The demise of Edinburgh's surf shops: sign of the times or a golden opportunity?

With Momentum, Boardwise and Freeze all gone, Edinburgh finds itself without a physical surf shop for the first time in a long time. Is this the end of the road for bricks-and-mortar surf emporia in the capital? Or will a new generation of board-slingers emerge once the Covid-19 crisis is over?

Vintage surfboards on display in a surf shop in Santa Cruz, California, including pro models ridden by Tom Curren and Rob Machado PIC: Roger Cox / JPI Media
Vintage surfboards on display in a surf shop in Santa Cruz, California, including pro models ridden by Tom Curren and Rob Machado PIC: Roger Cox / JPI Media

The last few years have not been kind to Edinburgh’s surf shops. First there was the Boardwise fire of 2016, which forced the closure of the brilliant surf‘n’snow emporium, and then, in March this year, Freeze Pro Shop announced it was going into administration – the shop and warehouse are to close permanently, although the website has been acquired by a third party and will reopen soon.

Does it really matter, in the grand scheme of things, if the city’s surf population will have to order all their gear online from now on? On the face of it, not really – a surfboard is a surfboard, whether it’s purchased from a bricks-and-mortar shop or a digital one, and some online surf megastores now offer advice via e-mail that’s as detailed as anything you’d expect to get in person.

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Surf shops, though, are so much more than just shops – the good ones are also meeting places and repositories of local surfing lore; they help spark enthusiasm and nurture local talent. In short, they act as unofficial hubs for otherwise invisible communities.

Brian and Sarah Stark, who ran Boardwise surf shop in Edinburgh until it was destroyed by fire in 2016 Roger Cox / JPI Media

I still remember the first surf shop I ever set foot in – Ocean Magic overlooking Newquay’s Great Western Beach. I was 14, shy, but determined to make the step up from bodyboarding to “proper” surfing, even if it cost me all of my £70 life savings.

Browsing the racks, it soon became obvious that £70 wasn’t even going to be enough to buy one of the most battered ex-rental boards, but the guy in the shop (long blond hair, slightly intimidating) took pity on me, dug out a 6’3” Phil Hodge Designs with a broken nose and a four-inch fin cut on the rail and said I could have it for £65. He even threw in a fibreglass repair kit, and gave me a crash course on how to mix the resin and the catalyst without burning a hole in myself or anything else. Once I’d fixed it up, that board survived years of abuse in mostly scrappy Cornish waves followed by three years of bruising bus and rail travel around the reef-strewn coast of Sri Lanka, whose heat and humidity gradually turned it from white to yellow.

Fast-forward to the early Noughties, and Edinburgh’s Momentum surf shop became a regular stopping-off point, not just to browse the latest boards made by owner Martin McQueenie, with their distinctive kilted surfer graphic, but also to gaze through the racks to the wall beyond, where there were photos taped up showing perfect winter days at Pease Bay and other east coast spots.

Momentum closed years ago, although it’s still possible to buy McQueenie’s boards online, and – as previously reported in The Scotsman – Jason Burnett of Jay Surfboards is crafting stunning bespoke boards out of a unit in Newbattle Abbey Business Park in Dalkeith, where he also sells leashes and fins. Now that Boardwise and Freeze are gone, though, the nearest traditional, everything-under-one-roof surf shop to Edinburgh is probably the one at the St Vedas Hotel at Coldingham, run by surfer and surfboard shaper Steve Powner, about an hour’s drive down the coast. It’s a great shop, and Mr Powner is turning out some beautiful retro-styled boards these days, but it’s not exactly a place Edinburgh surfers can duck into for five minutes on their way to somewhere else (unless that somewhere else is England).

Steve Powner, surfboard shaper and owner of the St Vedas surf shop in Coldingham PIC: Roger Cox / JPI Media

As people increasingly get used to buying things online, it seems unlikely that Edinburgh will get another physical surf shop any time soon. Then again, if you were thinking of opening one, now would probably be as good a time as any to take a leap of faith. After all, given everything that’s happened it should be easy enough to get prime, city centre retail space at favourable rates, and as surf shops have now been closed for over four months, there will be a lot of surplus stock sitting in warehouses that could probably be acquired for a lot less than the going rate. Sure, surfing is still very much a minority sport in Scotland, but – as both Boardwise and Freeze Pro Shop showed until recently – if you combine surf gear with ski and snowboard gear, you have an operation that can appeal to two distinct but complementary markets.

Whether or not some brave soul decides to open a surf shop in the capital as we slowly ease our way back to normality, it was great to see one open its doors on the wave-rich Isle of Tiree the other week. Operated by Willie Angus MacLean, who also runs the Tiree Wave Classic windsurfing contest, Wild Diamond Watersports announced in mid-July that it was opening a new store stocking functional gear for surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers.

The location beside Loch Bhasapol makes it ideal for windsurfers practising on the loch, but it’s also handy for the dreamy waves of Balevullin, the island’s premier surf spot – and no matter what marketing experts might tell you, there’s nothing that sells surfboards and wetsuits quite like the sight of perfect, reeling, aquamarine cylinders.

To find out more about the imminent reopening of the Freeze Pro Shop website, visit https://www.freezeproshop.com/gb. To visit Boardwise surf shop online visit https://www.boardwise.co.uk; for more on surfboards by Martin McQueenie, visit http://momentumsurfshop.com; and for more on St Vedas Surf Shop in Coldingham, visit https://www.stvedas.co.uk

Close-up of a surfboard shaped by Martin McQueenie, who used to run Momentum surf shop on Bruntsfield Place PIC: Roger Cox / JPI Media

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