Topic from @nicholaspnorth - Thanks!
"He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her." - Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea
MAR, as the quote above suggests, was born out of a love for the sea and the endless adventure, community, and humility that it offers to us. As the rest of that passage goes on to explain, the main character of Hemingway's tale viewed the sea as "something that gave or withheld great favors" and therefore was not something to be contended with, but rather something to seek the rhythm of and something that sets bounds for him to work within. In the same way, a core tenant of our self-shape community is to accept complete mastery of the sea through board-building as an impossibility but to pursue the life-long journey of working with the sea and with each other so that we may receive life's greatest favors.
This all sounds rather lofty and eloquent -- and in a way it is -- but like most great things, MAR was not even a thought when I stumbled into the first steps of what has become this worthwhile journey.
In 2011, I had just relocated from where I grew up in western New York (think rural Ontario Lake, not the Big City) to Northern Virginia. Neither of these places had ever felt quite like home and I had always promised myself that I'd move to the beach one day. As I was plotting next steps and seeking a new adventure, a friend introduced me to another friend who lived in Virginia Beach and mentored high-school students through the process of making their own surfboards - a program that he called Free Indeed. At this time, I had surfed probably 3 or 4 days a year on vacation (not including my failed attempts to ride stormy chop in the deep waters of Lake Ontario), but something in that mission called to me. Against all conventional wisdom, I packed up and headed to VB for a volunteer position with TIS YoungLife so that I could be a part of Free Indeed.
Through fate, purpose, or happenstance, I was able to find a job, a place to live with a stranger who has since become a best friend (you've probably heard of him), and transition my college education to an online program that allowed me to dive into Free Indeed head on. I was surfing every day and learning everything I could about boards. Within a year, I went from thinking my first ding meant that I could never use that board again to being the guy friends called to fix their boards and making boards for myself and friends.
In 2013 I graduated college with a degree in psychology and decided to embrace my love of surfboards and board-building as my career. I visited several surf shops and manufacturers in the area, showing them the boards I had made and some repairs that I had completed up to that point and asked them to take me on as an apprentice, a sweeper, an intern, or anything else they needed that would allow me to be in the board -building industry. Everyone I spoke to was rather kind and encouraging, but the surfboard industry is a difficult one and the shapers I spoke to explained that they were too busy to teach anyone and not busy enough to need even free help. I was discouraged. I wanted more than anything to learn this craft and almost every successful shaper got to where they are by spending years under other successful shapers who'd had mentors before them.
I took another job in retail. Still discouraged. I was still making my own boards and fixing boards for friends. I'm blessed to have been surrounded by friends and mentors with entrepreneurial spirits at that time. To them the answer was clear - if other shapers and glassers and repair shops wouldn't have me as help then they'd have me as competition. With their encouragement, support, and practical help I started repairing and shaping boards under the name Dirt Bag Surf Co. This name seemed like a great idea at the time and unfortunately was rather fitting for my workshop.
A friend offered his shed (approximately 150 sq. ft.) as a rent-free workspace and I was on top of the world. My boss at my retail job bought me side-lights for the shaping bay and my Christmas list that year was all shaping tools and materials. The plan at that time was to shape, glass, and sell stock and custom boards and offer customer-direct ding repair service (since all the surf shops we approached to offer repair service turned us down). It was a one-man show and I wanted to be the next big self-made shaper, but even then it was a community of people supporting that vision.
Somehow I managed to sell a few boards and repair a fairly large number of boards for what it was at that time. It was much more a self-sustaining hobby than a job, with the small amounts of revenue going back into tools, equipment, and materials. The countless hours alone in that tiny shed --shaping and glassing in the same room, squeezing giant boards through tiny doorways, and making templates out of cardboard-- taught me immeasurably valuable skills, tricks, and things to avoid in terms of board-building. But most importantly that time taught me that despite a love of surfboards and shaping, I did not want to spend my life alone in a dusty room.
Although I feared that the homely shed would let my customers know that I was new to the craft and "not as legit" as other shapers in the area, it appeared that the backyard vibe was instead comfortable and inviting. Customers would timidly ask if they could see their boards in process and more often than not they would join me in the shaping bay (and glass-room by default I guess...). These interactions were my favorite. My passion for designing and building boards was most full when sharing it with others and it was easy to see that the experience was enthralling for the customer as well; their board became a finished product that they felt more connected to and excited about as a result.
In 2015 the decision was made to offer this new self-shape experience as our primary focus rather than finished surfboards. The community of folks who had become personally interested in Dirt Bag's success helped move the shop into a 200 sq. ft. storage unit that was built out into a small shaping bay and even smaller glassing room, but it was still an upgrade from the shed and more accessible than a friend's back yard.
It was clear that self-shaping -- access to the tools, space, materials, and knowledge of someone willing to help -- was something that a portion of the surf community in Virginia Beach wanted. We had no budget for marketing, but we had something better. Every customer became a friend. Shaping Lessons take hours (back then many many hours as I was still refining the shaping process for myself, let alone teaching!) and so we didn't have transactions; we build relationships. Every person who comes to a Shaping Lesson is inherently being vulnerable; admitting they don't know enough about this topic to do it alone and asking for help. Asking for help is hard and not a common occurrence in todays day and age! When you ask anyone for help, you're revealing a weakness and hoping that they don't exploit it. Thankfully most decent people are happy to help and the process of learning together builds a bond that isn't easily broken. This happens in every Shaping Lesson and it became my focus to bring a welcoming atmosphere to every interaction and build relationship with every customer (even if they only came in for repairs or custom orders).
Through the following couple years and countless new relationships built in that storage unit, Dirt Bag Surf Co had grown, but not as a company -- as a community of people who saw value in and enjoyed the process of building boards and learning together. This meant two things: we needed a bigger space and we needed a more fitting name!
I was and will probably always be a Dirt Bag (we'll talk