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Over the top

Encinitas surfboard racks are more than just a status symbol; they're an identity 

By James Hebert 
January 6, 2004 

Tucked into a wisp of a strip mall hard off Highway 101, Encinitas Surfboards is easy to miss. If you're anywhere in the beach town that gives the place its name, though, the shop's hottest product is nearly impossible to avoid.

It's not the surfboards, although those are still the 28-year-old business' bread and butter. Nor is it the store's wet suits, or logo sweat shirts, or "Yoga for Surfers" videos, all popular items.

Instead, it's a surfboard rack – a simple set of straps and tie-downs and soft pads, priced at $34.95.

You can hardly toss a bar of surf wax in this city of 60,000 without hitting a set of the racks. They sit atop seemingly half the minivans, pickups and SUVs in town.

"They've just been kind of the rage, the hot thing," says Marc Adam, Encinitas Surfboards' co-owner. "And it seems the more we sell, the more popular they get."

But it's not necessarily the way the racks are made or the way they work that makes them so popular. Every surf shop in the county stocks nearly identical models, after all.

What makes these different is the word emblazoned prominently on the pads: "Encinitas."

Two years ago, Surfing magazine named Encinitas one of the top 10 surf towns in the nation. Over the past decade or so, housing prices in the community have boomed, the funky downtown district has been buffed out and local schools have earned sterling reputations.

All are reasons that people who live here might be feeling sufficiently boastful to display their Encinitas affiliation on the roofs of their cars.

"They're proud," says Adam of the locals. "They enjoy this area. And it's a great area. It's a great place to be. Especially considering what Southern California has become over the years."

The racks' popularity is an oddball phenomenon, though, for Encinitas Surfboards. The shop, which is not much larger than a two-car garage, long ago established itself as a no-nonsense resource for serious surfers.

Suddenly, it can hardly keep in stock a product that – for some buyers, anyway – amounts to a vanity item.

"It's amazing," says Tenaya O'Donnell, a sales rep at the shop. "In the summertime, it was so out of control. I would call the distributor up and say, 'Don't even mess around. Just send me a hundred.' We were selling them out of the boxes."

Adam says they sell about 1,200 of the racks a year, which works out to three or four sets a day.

And the buyers aren't only locals. Adam says he sees the racks on surf trips deep into Mexico, and on the freeway heading toward surf spots around Santa Barbara.

The buyers aren't even always surfers. When Adam mentions that fact while chatting in the shop on a recent weekday, one customer can't help asking why nonsurfers would want the things.

"Just for looks," Adam concedes.

"But I think most people do use them," he adds quickly.

Racking 'em up
One customer who definitely plans to use his is Mark Chinnis. Actually, Chinnis, who has stopped by the shop on a recent morning, doesn't need the full rig – he already has a set of Yakima racks to carry his kayak and surfboard. He's just here to get the pads with the Encinitas logo.

"I see them all the time," says Chinnis, explaining why he sought out the pads. "And they look good. Encinitas is cool. I was born and raised here."

To O'Donnell, one telltale sign that people are eager to display the Encinitas name is that they don't take the pads off when they're not in use.

"You can leave them on, or you can leave them off," she says. "But most people leave them on."

Except, she says, at the car wash – "because everybody has an SUV, and everybody has to get their SUVs washed."

Jerome Stocks, an Encinitas councilman who until recently was the city's mayor, says he likewise has noticed a lot of SUVs around town with Encinitas pads attached to their standard roof racks.

Stocks, a surfer himself, doesn't have a set of the racks but does own a board from Encinitas Surfboards.

"I have a convertible, so I just stick the board in the back."

To him, Encinitas represents "a state of mind and a state of being. And I think this is an expression of that."

In terms of symbolizing Encinitas, of course, the racks will never rival La Paloma Theatre, the venerable movie house that opened in 1928 and still screens a mix of feature films and surf flicks.

Or, for that matter, the Self-Realization Fellowship Center, with its spires that look like golden dollops of soft-serve ice cream. (The temple is perched high above Swami's surf break, whose famous name it inspired.)

But like an OB window sticker on a beat-up VW bus, or an Eastlake license-plate frame on a soccer mom's minivan, the racks are a statement about pride of place.

"There's no question that right now, Encinitas is experiencing a bit of a zenith, a bit of a surge in popularity," says Stocks. "We're becoming a destination. I don't think we were before, except for surfers and for families who wanted to live here."

And at least so far, he believes, pride in that standing hasn't swelled into snobbery.

"We haven't lost our soul," says Stocks. "That's very important."

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