Let’s Go Skate: Surfhouse
Surfhouse. Photo: Sowle Sisters
When I was 13 years old, I started skateboarding and it changed my life. I skated every day from 13 to 17 and have kept it up at least three to five times a week ever since. And while my skate heroes would change from icons like Mark “The Gonz” Gonzales, to more technical icons like Rodney Mullen, skateboarding has been a part of my life for many years. As a kid in the suburbs, jump ramps, half pipes, and binge watching the same skate videos to learn tricks were what I did on the daily. My first subscription to Thrasher came with the seminal album Bad Music For Bad People by The Cramps, and began a love affair I have for both music and skateboarding to this day. Being a skater is like a tattoo that you can never remove, it immediately bonds you to anyone who’s ever tried to caveman a handrail or pull a hippy twist off of a launch ramp. I also don’t know any skater from Houston who hasn’t skated the legendary ditch EZ-7, who hasn’t tried to cover a transition at Joe Jamail, or who doesn’t consistently look for new spots. My bible was Thrasher magazine, through skating I was introduced to more “alternative” music and friends that I have to this day, and my skate shop was and still is Surfhouse. But since no rider is complete without the perfect weapon, I decided to sit down with Carol and Lloyd Sandel of Houston’s Surfhouse, who’ve helped shaped so many lives through the purchase of little maple planks. Nothing has really changed at Surfhouse since I was a kid. They always stock the best products, it always smells like surf wax, and they’ve been at the corner of 34th & Ella since 1967. My Protech helmet, at least 40 to 50 percent of my boards, and my Pro Designed kneepads were all introduced and sold to me by these two, and if you’ve never been in the oldest skate and surf shop in Texas, then you’ve definitely been missing out on one of our city’s landmarks.
Free Press Houston: You two are both from Houston, correct?
Carol Sandel: Yes, we’re both from the Northside and we’re both graduates of Sam Houston high school.
FPH: What made you decide to open a surf and skate shop?
Lloyd Sandel: I started the shop in the summer of 1967 in Spring Branch up the street from Henry Fry’s surfboard factory. I had gone to California for college and I started surfing out there, and when I got back to Houston I was a mailman in Memorial. The shop originally was to repair surfboards for BJ’s Surf Shop, but before we knew it, we were selling new surfboards and shirts, and it grew to something closer to what we do now. We originally carried skateboards, back then called sidewalk surfers, because the surfers were into skating. The surfers invented skateboarding and surfboard companies like Hobie, Simms, and Gordon & Smith were who made and sold the little skate planks. We kept with both because both skateboarding and surfing exploded in popularity and as sports.
FPH: Next year will be 50 years strong, does it feel like it’s been that long?
Carol: Sometimes it does, but not really, it’s gone by so fast. We’ve had fun the whole time, lots of ups and downs like any retail business; but it’s our family now.
Lloyd: When you’re younger or in your twenties, the concept of getting old or older is something that old people think about. We’re older now, we’re fortunate in a lot of ways because we’re past the age of retirement, and we still can work. We’re still married, we work together everyday, and we both still love it. We’ve also taken on the elder grandparent role in the surf and skate communities, and everyone is so nice that it still brings us joy to do it.
Carol and Lloyd Sandel of Surfhouse, Photo: Rick Kent
FPH: I know that you’ve always strived to carry the best in skate and surf products, has there ever been a product that you’d wished you could still carry?
Lloyd: At one time we tended to carry what the industry calls “trendwear” items, like the latest shirt or shoe brands. Town & Country, Bad Boys Club, Jimmy Z; we were the first to carry those brands in Houston. But, after doing the accounting, we realized that we were selling more of our Surfhouse branded shirts than anything else, so that’s what we focus on mainly today. It’s become such a large part of our business, that Carol has a list of people from around the world who want specific designs shipped to them. The demand for the older sixties style designs is so high, that it’s hard for us to drop new designs. We’ve even gotten into baby and kids clothes because people want those as well.
FPH: As someone who’s seen trends come and go, do you think there’s a time when people won’t skate or surf?
Carol: No, that’d be like if you said that people would stop playing baseball. It’s become such a big deal now that I don’t see it ever going away.
Lloyd: It’s also the only sport I’ve seen where the dads are cool with their kids, when the kids find out that their dad used to skate. We have customers covering two or three generations, where the dad will say, “you set up my board when I was a kid, and now I want you to set up my son’s board too.” Skateboarding is also a sport, where dads and sons can do it together.
FPH: Skateboarding has changed so much in the past 30 years, yet Surfhouse has been there to shape the lives of so many kids. Do you see a time when local shops won’t be as important as they are in shaping a kid’s life, or in purchasing a board?
Lloyd: I think that down the line, things could change because the internet is so huge. But big box stores can’t sell pro quality items while paying someone minimum wage. The knowledge of the salesperson and the quality of the product doesn’t fit into their business model. A lot of times we hear from customers that we’re cheaper than what they can get online anyway, so while online is big; people generally get a better deal from us.
FPH: You’re moving into a new location about 100 feet away, are there plans for Surfhouse to continue another fifty years?
Carol: We’ll move into the new location being built behind us sometime next year, we think. We have so much stuff to move, I think it might be better to just take the walls with us instead.
Lloyd: We hadn’t planned on doing the shop another fifty years, but we still love doing it, so the plan is to keep doing it until we can’t anymore.
FPH: You’ve helped shape the lives of pretty much anyone who’s bought a skateboard or a surfboard here, aside from pro skaters like Houston’s Ben Raybourn of Birdhouse, are there any pro surfers tied to the shop?
Carol: We’ve never had any pro surfers tied to the shop, but the surfers used to come down here in the seventies. As far as skaters, it’s about the same thing. In the eighties, the skate companies used to tour and do demos, but they don’t really travel down here like they used to. We still know who’s coming up in town, and we stay in contact with skaters we sponsor like the Sowle Sisters.
Lloyd: The North Houston skatepark is the largest skatepark in North America, and touring skate parks has become a thing nowadays where people will take vacations to skate parks around the country. Little towns that have built skateparks have seen their economies boom because of it, and the Sowle Sisters take a vacation to the West Coast every year and skate all of the parks in-between. So even without the pros touring like they used to, we still get plenty of visitors who want to see the oldest skate shop in Texas.
You don’t have to take my word for it on how great Surfhouse is, alongside pictures of Christian Hosoi with John “Tex” Gibson that don the walls of the shop are the facts that many pros are customers as well. Mentality Skateboards’ Dan MacFarlane, John Gibson formerly of Zorlac and now owner and pro at Embassy Skateboards, and Matt Niemann of Cockfight Skateboards are all customers of Surfhouse. You can see the surf cam here, you can check out pics of the shop on Facebook here or here, see them on Instagram here, or you can meet Carol and Lloyd Sandel everyday at the shop itself. They’ll also be at EZ-7 this Thanksgiving for the annual Turkey Jam Contest, now in its 33rd year.