Maryland mellows surfing's Calif. edge

Malibu's on OC boardwalk welcomes all generations

August 23, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

OCEAN CITY - With his shoulder-length hair, hip board shorts and a tan betraying the number of hours he has spent in the sun, Lee Gerachis looks like a California surfer.

But this long-boarder also has a degree in biology and spent a year doing cancer research at the National Institutes of Health before deciding to open Malibu's Surf Shop.

In Ocean City.

The beachfront store - tucked into the house where Gerachis grew up - attracts a menagerie of surfers, from similarly minded, middle-aged professionals and retirees who often gather over coffee, the morning newspaper and games of dominoes to shaggy-haired teenagers looking for the next cool thing.

The shop sponsors a surf team whose alumni have gone on to become orthopedic surgeons, architects and Fulbright scholars.

And Gerachis and his staff don't hesitate to share their surfing expertise and local knowledge, something the store's regulars say is uncommon in a sport known for attempts to keep secret the locations of favored spots to catch a wave.

"One thing about surfing: It's not a very welcoming sport in a lot of ways. People jealously guard where there are waves," said Leo Ryan Jr., 49, a Baltimore County prosecutor who spent his childhood summers in Ocean City, met his wife there and decided to take up surfing, as he put it, during "one of my many midlife crises."

"These guys here, they're very welcoming and encouraging," he said. He likened the shop to Floyd's barbershop - but with surfboards instead of hair clippers - from the fictional town of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show. It's a rare blend of idyllic small-town America and the mellow world of surfing.

"They're all willing to share the excitement and joy people have for surfing and the ocean," Ryan said. "It's a great place."

Most summer mornings, Gerachis arrives at Malibu's Surf Shop by 6:30 or so. The pink streaks of sunrise still stretch across the horizon and sea gulls outnumber humans on the beach.

It took six years to open the store at Eighth Avenue and the Boardwalk, but Gerachis knew that's where he wanted to be, that he wanted his shop to look out over the sand and sea that fueled his earliest affections for surfing.

"What's unique about this place is that it's such a community. Even among 350,000 people, there's still a core," he said of the resort town's summer population. "I've lived in other beach towns, but that's the lure back. There's definitely a homing beacon in Ocean City. It brings you back."

Gerachis' hometown was in the midst of a protracted rezoning process in 1986 when he first proposed converting part of his family's three-story house and wrap-around porch into the store. He temporarily opened shop in Potomac but moved everything to the big white house on the Boardwalk just as soon as Ocean City officials would let him. That wasn't until 1992.

The store retains the homey, inviting qualities of, well, a home.

Well-worn floorboards creak underfoot. Vintage surfboards - some dating from the late 1940s - line the ceiling and walls, offering a fascinating window into the evolution of the sport. And the sunny front porch, with its crisp white fencing, chalkboard surf update and benches, invites customers and friends to sit and stay a while.

"This is like an old-time surf shop here," said Chris Hazard, 53, who grew up in Ocean City and runs a floor-covering business with his wife. "A lot of old guys come up here early in the morning. We shoot the B.S. We drink a cup of coffee. And then we go surfing - if there are waves."

Roy Lees, a former lawyer, served for 28 years in the Coast Guard before retiring and returning to Ocean City. He has spent a lifetime on the water and enjoys doing so with the guys at Malibu's, some of whom he also hits the bigger waves with in places like Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

"I know everyone up there. It's one of those social things," the 66-year-old said. "Plus, he lets us play dominoes on his bench if you can't surf and you can only swim so far."

Malibu's is a family shop, in both the literal and figurative sense.

The eldest of Gerachis' four children, 15-year-old Austin, works the sales floor. The shop's logos and T-shirt art, originally designed by Gerachis' best friend, who has since died, are now drawn by that man's 18-year-old son, an art school student who is the godson of the surf shop owner.

Although teenagers routinely drop by asking for work, Gerachis has never had to draw up a job application. He simply hires the kids from his surf team.

"A lot of surf shops are in it for the money and the business and all that," said Austin Debbe, a 15-year-old Ocean City native who works at the shop and surfs on Malibu's team. The store's grown-up employees call the younger ones gromits, or groms, for short. "This shop's a family. That's why everyone wants to be here."

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