LOS ANGELES, May 10, 2013 — Spencer Croul has one of the largest and most complete collection of surfboards. He founded the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center in San Clemente, CA and is also the owner of Croul Publications, which publishes coffee table-style books about surfing. Spencer took some time to discuss his collection, Surfing Heritage and Croul Publications with me.
Kevin Wells: Where did you grow up and how long have you been surfing?
Spencer Croul: I grew up in Newport Beach, California. I started surfing when I was a freshman in high school. I lived close to the beach and rode my bike to the beach.
KW: When did you start collecting surfboards and surfing memorabilia?
SC: Surfboard collecting started in 1996. The first ever surfboard auction was held here in town and it was very close to where I live. I attended because I was looking for art. I was remodeling my house at the time. I was thinking, as a kid growing up, a brand new surfboard ended up on the living room floor, just sitting there because it was so beautiful. I never really translated it into art. It was like more of a tool. This is a tool to go surfing with, I’m going to use it as such. As a dad and a husband, I thought it would be great to find some old surfboards and hang them up on the wall. Low and behold, there’s a surfboard auction, which had never been held before.
KW: How many surfboards do you personally own and where do you keep them?
SC: I don’t know the exact count. A lot of them are down at the Surfing Heritage Foundation in San Clemente. I’d say, you know, 150-ish, round numbers.
KW: How did you come to start the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center?
SC: Well, as I started collecting more and more boards, it turned out the surfboard auctions became kind of a regular thing. So there was that one in December of 1996 and there was another one by another promoter that came in the spring of ’97. For a while there were two a year and it started prompting an interest and then meeting other collectors. Surfboards are not small items. What do you do with these things?
As I was remodeling my house, I only had room for a few. So I rented a warehouse. I decided it would be interesting to collect the evolution of design in the surfboard. If these boards were coming up for sale and you could find boards as early as the late 1800s, early 1900s and all through present day, I thought I would focus my collection on the milestones of design and materials and who shaped them and who rode them. I wanted to stand up these surfboards in real life and time so you could walk through a timeline instead of seeing it on paper. I was doing that in a personal warehouse I was renting.
Then I met Dick Metz who ran all of Hobie’s stores, there were 22 at the time. He’s more my dad’s age and was collecting surfboards as a shop owner and he saw what I was doing. We became friends and I started pulling his surfboards into my collection because he had some key boards that I could fill up some holes with. Then we had a pretty nice example in this warehouse. It was a private museum behind closed doors. That’s when Dick started a non-profit foundation and I backed it financially and we moved from the warehouse to San Clemente in 2004. We bought a building and transformed it into a museum.
KW: What made you want to start Croul Publications?
SC: That came out of the collecting. As I’m learning about surfboards and history, you know, who are these guys? Who are these myths, these legends, these archetypes that you read about in Surfer Magazine? They were kind of lost. There wasn’t much information on them. I met, through my collecting, he was a part-time journalist and turned out to be a biographer for one of these legends, Tom Blake. He was a contemporary of Duke Kahanamoku’s, was an inventor, a champion swimmer in the 1920s and 30s. Gary [Lynch] promised Tom Blake that he was going to do a book on him. I was into it. I became a student of history. Through my collecting, I didn’t want to just be an average Joe who didn’t know what [he] was talking about, I wanted to go deep.
I hooked up with Gary and we collaborated. I financially backed this project and we came out with our first book. It’s a high quality book. We did 3,000 copies and it was linen bound and numbered, limited edition kind of deal. We spared no expense, we wanted to do a really fine book. The same thing happened with my next book, but the legend, in this case, was someone I was working for, I was shaping surfboards with and for. His story needed to be told. The third book was another myth, a legend that my father knew. So I wanted to him a tribute. This guy was lifeguarding on the beach when my dad grew up. Again, someone you would never know about or hear about unless you went deep and uncovered his story.
KW: What is the next book for Croul?
SC: I am reprinting the Tom Blake book because we sold out. That’s coming out this June in paperback. I am doing a book on an artist who was influential and inspirational to me growing up as a surfer. I wouldn’t call his art surf art. He’s more of a regionalist, does landscape and psychedelic work. He also is known for his waves and his association with surfing and psychadelia and LSD. I’m from the 70s. I was born in ’55, so I grew up in the 70s. That’s the kind of guy I was looking at, so I became a collector of his work. Through my association with him, I’m doing a book on his art. Again, it’s someone that was kind of lost in the wind and no one’s paid much attention to, but to me and a whole bunch of other people, he’s got that “it” factor and we want to do a book on him. So we’ve got the Tom Blake reprint, we’re doing a book on Bill Ogden and two years ago we signed Hobie. We’re in the final chapters now of writing the Hobie book, which will be due out, I would say, this fall. It’s a biography.
KW: There is an auction this Saturday, May 11, to benefit the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center in Orange County. Can you tell me a little bit about what people can expect?
SC: It’s a cultural event. There’s going to be surfboards. There’s gonna be music. There’s gonna be artists. There’s gonna be authors. It’s at the Orange County Fairgrounds, so it’s a large venue. We’ve got a world champion surfer, three-time champion Tom Curren. He’s got his own trio and he plays folksy blues music. He’ll be there introducing his new CD that is recently out. We’ll have legends from the 50s, guys like Greg Knoll and Renny Yater, from the 60s, Corky Carroll. From the 70s, we’ve got Larry Bertlemann. Like I said, Tom Curren, Tom Carroll, I think. We’ve got a menagerie of surf legends. There’s going to be book signing going on. I think we’ve 45 artists. So, we’ve got a big room full of art and it will be combined with a silent auction. It’s mostly surfboards, but there’s a few key pieces that are not surfboards.
One happens to be a photo journal by A.R. Geary. He did six of these photo essays that are like seven or eight pages. They were done between 1911 and 1914. He’s kind of known as the father of surf photography. The last one that was sold at Bonhams and Butterfields went for $37,500. We’re hoping to bring in equal numbers. We’ve got our fingers crossed. Tom Blake, the guy we did the book on, we’ve got one of his trophies from 1932. He was the first one to race from Catalina, which is 26 miles on a paddle board. There were three guys that competed, I think it was from the mainland to Catalina. It’s a California pottery trophy. California pottery is very collectible. The fact that it’s Tom Blake’s trophy, makes it unusual and significant. Collector’s would be into that sort of thing. Let’s go back to the surfboards. We gonna have surfboards from kind of the evolution like I collected. Early wood, from solid redwood to balsa redwood to balsa fiberglass and then going into the 60s. There were unusual and important designs throught the 60s, 70s, 80s, so a great cross-section of cool boards.
Surfboards really haven’t become important pieces of collectible art like cars or certain high end art. To me, it seems like one day, it’s gonna have it’s day because of how the culture today is affected by surfing. So this is kind of the genesis of a cultural explosion that happened worldwide. Quicksilver t-shirts are being worn in China, if you get my drift. It takes it full spectrum in 100 years how it’s exploded. Well, I guess it’s more of a personal opinion, but I’m into it. It hasn’t really caught on as a well-accepted society thing.
KW: International Surfing Day is on June 20. Do you have any special plans to celebrate this year?
SC: I’m planning on going surfing. There’s a group that meets down at San Onofre. They’re called The Sliders. We take out old surfboards and we ride them like they would have back in the day. Some guys bring wool costumes. We celebrate by paying homage to the past, in a way. We get in our Woodies, our Volkswagon buses and we bring our old boards and we do a little picnic. We camp out; tents and music and so forth. We celebrate it like it was the 1940s.
KW: Is there anything else you would like people to know about you, Croul Publishing, or the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center?
SC: I would like to offer up the website for both. The Surfing Heritage and Culture Center is surfingheritage.org and Croul Publications is croulpublications.com. On Croul Publications, I’d like people to know that we’re continuing to, even though publishing is kind of a dying business I see a niche market in producing high quality interesting books that tell a story of these myths, like I said, legends and archetypes that a lot of people didn’t know about, but were influential and charismatic and significant people who helped shape a culture that we all come to recognize today.
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