Fittingly, Thomas K. Brimer gets pretty jumpy. The lean, somewhat-bombastic sixtysomething surfer with the shaggy mop of blondish-gray hair and thick, black-framed, Coke-bottle-thick glasses moves about a mile a minute through the aisles of TK’s Froghouse Surf Shop. As he stealthily maneuvers the rows of wetsuits and surfboards at his store, which has survived on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach since 1962, his head bobs from time to time above the racks of rash guards and surfboards. He fields questions from every direction, before leaping toward the storeroom to disappear.
When he re-emerges, he has good news: The thingamabob is in stock. The phone rings. “Teeee-kaaaaay!” one of his shop guys, Zack Leonard, yells across the crowded shop before returning to banter with a grom mom buying a new wetsuit for her son. A finance guy is on the other line with some sort of pitch. “Oh, here we go,” Brimer says to everyone and no one at once, with an air of resignation and exasperation.
“We are a small shop,” he tells the guy in a tone that lets everyone present know he’s about to preach his Tao. “I have about 10 checks to sign a week.” Call the big guys on Main Street, he says candidly. “They’ve got hundreds of employees!”
Froghouse sits on the north side of PCH on Newport’s Westside, the less Housewife-y section of town across from 56th Street and the Santa Ana River Jetty. Sand is caked in every crevice of the storefront, with its legendary frog mural on the side. A distinct fragrant blend of neoprene and epoxy resin with base notes of Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax perpetually hangs in the air. It’s faded, crusty OC with characters out of a Rick Griffin panel, a very different Newport than today’s slick version.
But there are few throwbacks like Brimer, who only occasionally visits our modern world. Journalists nowadays mostly use email to get in touch with potential story subjects, maybe send a Facebook message or get a cellphone number from a friend of a friend to call or text. Not with Brimer. Try to get information from Froghouse employees on his whereabouts, and they’ll direct you to the carbon-copy message pad that sits on a glass display case. Brimer’s social media is solely for others to post pictures. He rarely uses a computer other than to check the few emails he receives on his AOL account.
A cellphone is like an “electronic leash,” Brimer explains when we finally meet face to face. And that’s the only way to meet: You have to hope you run into him or catch him at the shop when he hasn’t come up with an excuse to go surfing.
This Luddite life is part of what has maintained the same Froghouse vibe since original owner Frank Jensen seized on the newfangled surfing craze by opening a store that catered to the half-clothed teens flanking the shoreline. Not a surfer himself—he didn’t even know how to swim—Jensen named his shop after a Big Kahuna type nicknamed Frog. It’s one of the oldest surf palaces in OC, with Jack’s Surfboards on Main Street in Huntington Beach claiming the legacy title. But shops such as Jack’s and Hobie’s today bear no resemblance to their original incarnations, unlike their Newport peer.
With mainstream brands co-opting the surf culture to get their share of what Global Industry Analysts estimates is a $13.2 billion industry, most shops have grown into Sears-like megastores, with the vast majority of inventory being soft goods—what lay people call “clothes.” Froghouse flips that shop ratio, refusing to cater to a wider audience that doesn’t wax regularly. But despite the limited inventory, the shop buzzes all day, with locals stopping in, junior lifeguards picking up fins, shirtless-and-shoeless surfers tracking the elements through the door, and the occasional old friend or longtime customer making a surprise appearance.
And every night, Brimer takes handfuls of handwritten receipts home to his wife, Linda, to tally and record.
“It’s like a drug house for surf shit,” said Weekly photographer John Gilhooley after trying to track down Brimer for weeks, which resulted in the outdoor-shower shot you see here (his shop guys goaded him into doing it). But it’s also not a bro zone in an era in which surfers become more and more clannish and suspicious—even mocking—of outsiders. “I always thought, ‘If I am ever in a position to have my own surf shop, that’s not how I would treat people,'” Brimer says. “We are an itty-bitty surf shop surrounded by big-box surf shops. We have to be different.”
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For Brimer, surfing took hold as a 12-year-old in Titusville, Florida, population 10,000, about the same time Froghouse opened its doors. He was immediately smitten, even if he considers himself late to the game. “Florida was about 10 years behind California when it came to surfing,” he says. He spent most of his days chasing waves with his friends Richard and Steve Alexander, cruising in a Dodge convertible along the Atlantic coast with the brothers’ long, red surfboard (which they all shared) sticking out the back. Brimer got a gig blowing up beach mats to save up and buy his own.
Impatient even then, the teen asked his father for a $140 loan—big money in those years. Instead, his levelheaded dad drove him to the bank and co-signed for a loan. His payment-ticket book broke it down—the monthly payments, the interest rate translated to cash dollars, and the extra he’d pay if he stuck to minimum payments. “It was shocking to me,” he recalls, especially for a kid mowing lawns at $3 a pop. He worked hard, paid off the loan early, and promised himself he would never again buy anything on credit other than real estate or businesses. He still hasn’t.
In 1967, Brimer’s rocket-scientist father transferred from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach half-way through senior year. Brimer happily headed West, and Surf City became a natural home. Once settled, he met Charlie Ray, who surfed with the Froghouse team. “I walked in the front door, and it was the surfiest surf shop I could have ever dreamed of,” Brimer says, the memory still fresh. Jensen’s favorites helped themselves to beers from the in-house keg as they compared notes on local girls and waves. “I thought, ‘If I could belong and be an insider with these guys, then who could be against me as I made my way into the lineup in the local surf breaks?’ I wanted to belong, and this was my chance.”
Impulsively, he pleaded with Jensen for a job that wasn’t available. After a few weeks, Jensen asked Brimer to work Saturdays, which was about five days a week less than he was already toiling away for free. And for the next 10 years—save for a seven-month trip that saw him surf through Panama and nearly settling down to a life of full-time surf-bummery in Costa Rica—Brimer worked at the Froghouse, eventually becoming manager. A side hustle buying and selling properties allowed him to save cash and approach Jensen with a proposition: Either he sell the shop to Brimer for $100,000, or Brimer would start his own near Bolsa Chica and compete. Jensen agreed to sell.
Brimer couldn’t help but haggle, though. They agreed on $100,000 for the business—but that didn’t include inventory. Brimer only had $60,000, so Jensen financed the remainder over 10 years. They came to an agreement on the finance rate, and then Brimer appealed to Jensen’s love of gambling. Froghouse hosted regular all-night poker sessions, so they played three hands of five-card low, a shop favorite. Each hand Brimer won decreased the percentage rate by 0.25 percent. Brimer got lucky—and an even sweeter deal.
That still wasn’t enough. Brimer also wanted the option to buy the property, which included the store, a small house and the lot below. Jensen, known as someone unafraid of coming off as difficult, wasn’t interested. “Well, would you sell it for $50 million?” Brimer asked, with a grade-school “huh?” thrown in at the end.
It was, of course, a ridiculous question about three lots in Newport in the 1970s. Jensen begrudgingly admitted he would.
“So, then you will sell it,” Brimer replied with some snark, determined to wear him down no matter the starting point.
He convinced Jensen to add an option that allowed him to buy the property for $450,000 at the end of his 30-year lease. By the time the lease expired in 2008, its market value was $850,000. Jensen honored the deal. “I came out smelling like a rose,” Brimer says through a satisfied smile years later. If he had to rent, that could easily cost $10,000 per month. That cushion allows Brimer to stay true to Froghouse’s roots.
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“I don’t want to be one of those rich surf-industry types,” Brimer says. He turns down offers to add more locations because he doesn’t need to sell out to survive or even thrive.
“My competitors don’t like me sometimes,” he says, referring to his sustainable overhead that translates to competitive pricing and coveted bro deals. Besides, he’s not into capitalizing on surf culture in an inauthentic way. “The surf industry used to be about lifestyle,” Brimer says, wistfully recalling the days when shop owners closed up on Wednesdays and went surfing instead of selling boards. These days, the biz is too cutthroat for such camaraderie.
“What we call the surf industry now is really the clothing industry,” Brimer says. “What bothers me is all the kids who will grow up never having gone in a real surf shop,” he says before looking off toward the ocean, through a wall with no window, lost in thought.
The Froghouse pretty much operates the same as back when Brimer traded a surfboard to an artist for the store’s logo, a surfer in a barrel coming out of a frog’s mouth. That logo is one of the reasons the shop’s T-shirts are so popular with purists. It’s also because Brimer finally thought to take them out of the cabinets some years ago so people could see them. There is no computer, no electronic inventory. The cash register doesn’t work, and the only guy Brimer knows who can repair it died a few years back.
Brimer’s list of contacts in the surf industry amounts to a long, worn-out piece of paper taped to the front of the broken register. Peeps usually call him when it’s time to pay up, for which he pulls out an honest-to-goodness checkbook and handwrites a check for thousands.
The function-over-form store layout is a little intimidating to the average Joe or Jane, especially with its inside-joke thingamajigs, irreverent signage and vintage photos of surfers hanging from every square inch. A mounted, cartoonish shark head akin to the one in Jaws watches over the dressing rooms. Vintage California license plates alternate between surf- and Froghouse-related paintings people gifted Brimer over the years. A sale sign promotes “gluten-free, cage-free, hormone-free” tail pads. A Best Surf Shop trophy with a naked Ken doll atop posed like Burt Reynolds in a Playgirl centerfold cozies up to the skateboards. A taxidermied mountain lion wearing a top hat hangs next to a childhood photo of Brimer with his signature thick, black glasses already defining his fashion sense at a young age. It all looks like it could be Brimer’s garage, where he rents boards to passersby.
The trade-off is that he doesn’t have to pass on any remodeling costs to customers—or even general maintenance beyond the occasional shop guy running a vacuum through the place. “If you’re going to shop in a place that looks like this, you should at least save a buck,” Brimer says, as customers stream in.
Besides, if customers who frequent any of Froghouse’s real competition actually surf, Brimer has a secret weapon. His is one of the only local surf shops left that offers wetsuit repair, so competitors often refer people to Froghouse for their stitches. That gets new, potential return customers through the door who may have otherwise passed by. It’s still more shop than store, with tools around for ding repair and a messy storeroom with two vintage, industrial Chandler sewing machines bookending the small workspace.
“Surf shops are a part of surfing that is becoming lost,” Brimer says again. “People can get hooked on it still, but it’s just not the same.”
Yet, the Froghouse manages to not only hang on, but also ride out the industry’s ebbs and flows. The shop broke its all-time sales records during the past three years because “people are still surfing,” Brimer says. This year is on track to be just as good, and he’s as surprised as anyone else. But he knows sales are cyclical, so he keeps a diverse investment portfolio to absorb any dips. He even owns a Jack-in-the-Box in South Carolina.
But some things are hard to predict or prepare for. In July 2010, the city of Newport Beach issued Brimer a notice to abate his building. After 48 years as a city landmark, he found out Froghouse was not zoned for commercial use and that he had 90 days to relocate or apply for rezoning. He had become victim to the city’s urgent quest to rid itself of sober-living homes by going after business owners working out of residential properties. Back when Jensen opened the business, the city basically looked the other way with the caveat that he never switch the type of business operating at the location. But that changed.
It wasn’t just Brimer who felt the sting. Generations of Froghouse faithful fought back. Someone started a Save the Froghouse Facebook page, which garnered 17,000 likes within days. A former customer named Larry printed up thousands of high-quality, laser-die-cut “Save the Froghouse” stickers to pay back Brimer’s kindness from when he was an aspiring pro surfer in the 1980s. Someone else sent hats with the same slogan. Two other regulars who owned a land-use company tutored him on how to navigate the building and planning department, as well as how to get the city manager to admit that Froghouse was a “non-intended consequence” of the sober-living ordinance. An architect gave him drawings for gratis, and an attorney pitched in services pro bono.
Community members wrote letters to the city, adding personal stories about how Brimer was more than just a quirky shop owner. He was the guy who hires homeless people to paint a new mural on the backside of the shop to put earned money in their hands. The guy who volunteers with fellow church members at a summer camp for foster kids. The one who loans an employee money to fix his car without batting an eye.
“It was kind of uplifting,” says Mikey “Beho” Flores, Brimer’s best friend and a Froghouse employee since the day Brimer bought the shop.
Once the issue made it onto the Newport Beach City Council docket, the troops rallied. So many people showed up to the council chambers—from Bob Hurley to parents to local surfers who had never cared for local issues yet showed up with speeches—that it was the first item the council addressed, lest everyone stay up late. A waiver to save the Froghouse passed unanimously. “It was like the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life,” Brimer says, still touched.
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If you’re trying to track down Brimer on any given day, he will most likely walk into Froghouse mid-morning and immediately leave for a surf sesh with Beho before returning to pick up messages, take care of business and get his employees something to eat. In his mind, it just makes more sense to buy the tadpoles lunch and deliver it yourself in your decades-old, rusty, oxidized, silver Volvo wagon with as many stickers plastered on its every inch as a Wahoo’s. That way, he doesn’t have to deal with scheduling lunch breaks, especially since employees each get a paid surf break most days, too. The most complicated part is where they will get lunch from, which comes down to the winner of a game of airborne tiddlywinks headed toward a specific “H” on the Hurley-logoed carpet. There are do-overs, tape measurers, judgment calls, but it always remains amicable. The winner chooses which lunch menus to pull out of the drawer, and lunch is served behind the counter.
No one has more fun than he does, Brimer jokes. He even makes time to volunteer every summer at the Orange County Fair to make waffle cones in exchange for a season pass and some prime people watching.
His 36-year-old son, Dane, however, wanted to put his MBA to use at the family biz and focus things at the Froghouse. Brimer gave in and let Dane start a mail-order website for a couple of years, but he kept the inventory separate. It fizzled out when the server crashed and they had problems with code and couldn’t find any willing computer guys to fix it. They dropped the domain. Brimer never got excited about the venture, and Dane moved on to work at a surf company managing online sales.
“I remember when I was younger, I thought, ‘I can run this place,'” Beho confides during a private conversation, away from Brimer’s ears. The 61-year-old remains a mainstay despite having a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and even though, as Brimer admits, the job doesn’t pay well. Beho also gets fired a lot. But he has a key, so he just shows up, opens the shop and gets back to it.
“But now I know, if I owned this place for one year, we would be out of business,” he says. “The way TK manages this place is beyond comprehension. To have survived for this many years, it’s astonishing. He runs it like—there is a term for it—like chaos. But he does it.”
“I knew I wanted to be at this surf shop all my life,” Brimer says. “I never wanted to be rich. I wanted to surf and travel. I have been on too many surf trips to count, and I have surfed six out of the past seven days.”