In the surfer community of San Francisco and beyond, if you've been in it a good while, you probably knew about Bob Wise and his half-century-old surf shop at Ocean Beach, Wise Surfboards.
A quintessential, self-described "old timer" of California's surf culture, and one of the first to open a surf shop in San Francisco back in 1968, Bob Wise had seen it all from the beginning where SF's surf scene was concerned. And a few weeks ago, the world lost a legend, as Wise passed away at age 74 — three years after closing his eponymous surf shop.
Friend Arnold Wong posted to Facebook about Wise's passing, writing, "He kept vigilance in having a place for local surfers to come and hang out and talk shop, offering the newest and latest surfboard designs. A quiet humble man, who didn't take sh*t from anyone, with a no nonsense approach to running the longest running surf shop in SF history."
Wise Surfboards was indeed the longest-running surf shop in the city before it closed, if not the first — that honor goes to surf legend Jack O'Neill, whose surf shop opened at Ocean Beach in 1952 and closed in 1966 after he and his family relocated to Santa Cruz. But Bob Wise and his surf shop, which ultimately became a three-story affair at 800 Great Highway, were touchstones for the local surfing scene, particularly in the 1970s and 80s — in the pre-internet days when you needed to call the store and hear Wise's daily recorded outgoing message to know what the conditions were like at Ocean Beach that day.
"For what it’s worth, conditions today are..." Wise's message would usually begin.
The Chronicle covered the closure of Wise Surfboards in late 2019, at a time when a store employee said business had been down overall. Surf shops endured through the early years of e-commerce in part because surfboards were difficult to ship, and were still a product that consumers want to see up close and touch.
Wise Surfboards also maintained an informal honorary club called the Double Overhead Association, which included a group of local surfers and photographers, and if you succeeded in surfing a wave that was double your height, you got your photo posted to the wall inside the shop — a special Ocean Beach honor.
But by 2011, Wise was telling Surfer Magazine, "As far as business goes, the Internet is actually wiping most of us off the map." And, he noted, that business had been great when his shop was the only game in town and the only surf shop north of Santa Cruz, but that had also changed over time.
When he started the business, Wise shaped and glassed his own custom surfboards out of a shop on Wawona Street. But the business ultimately grew into selling surfboards from dozens of brands from around the world as well as wetsuits and other gear.
Wise, like many longtime surfers in SF, lamented the fact that there was little sense of community or culture left in recent decades on the local scene.
"Years ago, it used to be that the guys that surfed out here, everybody knew everybody. Most of us lived by the ocean," Wise told Surfer Magazine a decade ago. "You really couldn’t live inland and be a surfer. When I was a young guy, if you were on the other side of town, if you were five miles away, you could miss it, you know. There was no way of knowing. So it’s a whole different deal right now. Surfers are scattered, and I really don’t think there’s a surf scene and a surf culture, per se."
As Glenn Brumage, executive director of Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center, told the Chronicle three years ago, "There would be no surfing without the surf shop. You found out information where to surf, you met people who surfed. There was no other place to get the information needed."
RIP, Bob Wise.
Top image courtesy of Wise Surfboards