Growing up as active members of the surf and skate community in Marin, Proof Lab owners Will Hutchinson and Nate McCarthy have always dreamed of owning their own surf and skate shop. Inspired by this dream, Will and Nate purchased Marin Surf Sports in 2004, with the goal of being more than just a run of the mill retailer. This past summer the duo put their dreams into action, renovating their entire space into a community hub, featuring an indoor skate park, an outdoor/workwear shop called Proof Lab Station, and a sustainability/art center called GROW. Read our interview with Will below to learn more about the story of how Proof Lab came to be, its current operations, and the goals of their expansion.
What initially inspired you to open a surf and skate shop? And why in Mill Valley?
My business partner Nate and I both used to work at the original store at this location, Marin Surf Sports, in high school when I was around 16. So we knew the original owner, who then sold the shop to some sporting goods store, who wasn’t that interested in running it, and the shop kind of wavered for 5/6 years plus. I was away at college in Southern California during that time, and when I came back from college Nate and I met up and said, “let’s start a shop”. Our inspiration came from really just growing up in Marin, surfing, skating, and wanting to see a shop done right. We were always around the surf and skate industry, so it was just kind of natural to open our own store. We opened our first shop by the 7/11 that’s on the way out to Stinson Beach and it was totally back roads, a tiny little shop run by just Nate and I. We had that location for a year, and then we made a deal with Surf Sports to take over their lease. Since moving to this location, we have just kept growing the shop, culminating this summer when we opened up the new expanded portion of Proof Lab.
Do you guys produce a lot of the stuff you sell in your store?
That’s actually one of the big projects we are trying to work on at the moment, making more of our own stuff. Right now we don’t make as much as we should. The vast majority of items we sell come from other people. We just moved over to this location during the summer, so I have been swamped with construction, which has taken a large chunk of my energy. But that is totally the direction we want to go, making more private label stuff. We bought a screen printing press, we have up stairs, that we just haven’t had the time to finish getting set up. Once we get the press setup, we hope to begin printing our t-shirts on a more regular basis and hopefully make it available to the people of Marin. So, for example, kids can learn how to print their own stuff. Hopefully by this summer we will be making shirts here, and in the future making more of our own surf and skate items, like surfboard leashes, jeans, flannels, etc.
You mentioned the large renovation you guys have just gone under, how has that process been, and how do you feel about the final product?
I’ve been one of the main people involved with the renovation, so it’s been draining, but the final product, I feel, is awesome. It’s been kind of weird, that during the renovation, it has felt as though I’ve been running a construction site, I mean, I’m a retailer, that’s what I do for my profession, but the past 6 months my job has been construction manager. It’s like everyday, there’s a hole in the roof, or the drainage isn’t working, or this or that, it’s a totally different job. I’m glad the grind is almost over, although it’s never really over (strained laughter). What has been really great, and made all the work really worth it, is all of the feedback we have received about the new shop. Since day one, almost all of our customers have been totally supportive about everything we’ve done. The kids are stoked, the parents are stoked; getting positive feedback from our customers makes it worth it. We didn’t know while we were doing the renovation if all our work would be worth it. There are always those questions in the back of your head: what if we mess up? What if it doesn’t work and no one likes it? You think that you might do all of this, and people will be bummed. Luckily for us, it’s been working out, and we have no complaints.
We hear that your shop does a fair amount of work with businesses in the community, can you expand on that?
There are two parts to that. The first part of our work with the community, are the small businesses that we have helped start through shop, like we have a surf camp that Ian runs, called Big Dog Surf Camp. It’s a totally viable, stand alone business he runs through here. So, we store the gear here, the kids meet here, he rents the board and equipment he uses from us, etc. There are a bunch of other examples like that, such as our ding repair guy runs his own repair shop in the store, we have a music school here now, and GROW, which has art studios and ceramics. All of these examples are totally viable little businesses, which we helped get started. The other part is that we also try to support other small business around here. As we expand, we try not to do things that are already being done. For example, we are not going to try selling bikes, Mill Valley already has Mt. Tam Bikes, and Studio of Velo. We aren’t going to try to open a restaurant, there’s already Café del Soul, a great small business we work with. Basically we try to be conscious of what is going on, business-wise, around us. There’s obviously going to be some overlap, between us and other surf and skate shops, but we try to carry different products from the other Marin shops, such as Triumph 4th and Fat-Kat Surf-Skate, so we can all survive. We also try to support a lot of other local brands. Anyone who is making local stuff, we want to support. The front area of the t-shirt section in our store is made up of all local brands. In the future we hope there is a forum of sorts for small businesses to interact with each other. All it takes are neat, cool, open-minded small business owners open to working together, to create this forum of small businesses open to promoting each other. Once there’s enough of them, we can just start referring customers to stores in Marin. If the customer needs a bike, refer them to Mt. Tam Bikes, if they need food, refer them to so and so.
Can you tell us a little more about the GROW Center?
We’re still trying to figure out exactly what it is. It is basically our non-profit arm. We have always tried to be a conscious business, and we used to just donate a lot of money to other non-profits. As we have been moving forward, specifically as we were doing the renovation, I went over all of our donations, and after reviewing everything, I just really wanted to have more control over how the money we were donating was being spent. All of the organizations we worked with were great, but we felt that we were already moving towards more non-profit work, and again, just really wanted to have more control over where the money was going, and how it was being spent. So, we partnered with our neighboring business, Alpha Dog, and rented a lot of land next to our stores, and built the GROW Center. We really wanted the Grow center to be a promotion of sustainability, but we felt that was a very broad term, it was like, “what does that really mean, promoting sustainability?” As small business owners, we were kind of frustrated, because there’s just not that much that you can do to promote sustainability. We have to stay in business/operate, which means we’re doing things like buying stuff made overseas, turning on lights, throwing away stuff that just ends up in landfills. I mean we try to buy recycled/green or made in America products, and support eco-concious brands like Patagonia, but we just didn’t feel like we were doing anything that progressive or different than what everyone else was doing. Just kind of like business as usual. So we said, “we want to do something different. How cool would it be if there was the normal, for-profit, side to our business, and then there was this whole other part to our business that wasn’t about making money and had all of these cool education, art and environmental activities going on. Where we could also host events, like big movie premiers, and do some more progressive stuff.” This led to us starting the GROW Center. It’s slowly being built out right now. It currently has a ceramic studio, as well as an art studio, which are totally self-sufficient, and running well. We are now building the garden space, and I don’t want to speculate, but the plans are pretty exciting in terms of greenhouses, and native plant usage. We also have a farm stand that is opening next month, May. The farm stand is run by an organic farm out in Bolinas, Fresh Run Farms, and they are planning to sell locally grown organic produce five days a week.
Is there a breakdown to your shop?
I would say we have two parts to the shop. The surf and skate part, and a more mature oriented fashion part. We don’t really have a word for the “mature” fashion portion of the store, but it is outdoor and work wear apparel, generally geared toward an older client, the stuff that we (Nate and me) are just starting to wear. We’re in our thirties now, so we’re starting to branch out from just wearing core surf and skate brands like we did growing up. Over at the other shop, Proof Lab Station, the clothes are generally of a little higher quality, like better jackets, and jeans, as well as stuff made in America, which is going to cost more. For example, Dickies clothing has their basic ‘Chino’ for 20 bucks, but then they have their line of khakis that are made completely in the US on their original mills that are $150-$160. We carry both, but there’s actually been more demand for the US version.
We’ve also heard that you guys sponsor both a skate and surf team through the shop, can you elaborate on what exactly your ‘sponsorship’ implies?
Basically, the best surfers and skaters we come across, we sponsor on our team. The teams are not competitive, and it’s not really formal, we just give them equipment and clothing, for free or for discounted prices, and they in turn throw stickers on their board, and rep us. It’s an old practice in the surf industry. They are like our field reps, they represent us at the beach or the skate park. A lot of the time, for whatever reason, a lot of the top surfers and skaters, the ones killing it, don’t have the funds to buy a new board or wetsuit, so we try to help them out.
You guys were recently named Thrasher magazine’s shop of the month. Can you tell us a little about how that came about, and how it feels to be recognized by such a prestigious name in the surf and skate world?
We’ve been in business for 8 years now, so we’ve had a long relationship with them. I mean we carry their magazine and their shirts in the store, and they’re right over the bridge in San Francisco, so they come in and skate sometimes and we’ve gone over to their warehouse and skated, so we were on their radar. They knew what we had done with the shop, the big expansion, and they had been skating over here more and more. Then one day we were calling them for a re-up, and they asked us if we were interested in being the shop of the month. It was a total surprise. It’s a total honor because it wasn’t like we were applying for it, or in some sort of running, they just asked out of the blue, and we were like, “are you kidding, of course.” So yeah, it was awesome.
What are your goals moving forward?
Well, we’re always trying to stay in business (laughter), and that’s not a gimme. The trends are not moving in our favor, there are fewer and fewer small independent retailers out there. We’re trying to be here, be profitable, and keep doing all of the things we are currently doing, such as maintaining all this area (points to skate ramps located in the back of the shop) for just skate parks, instead of using it as more space to sell stuff. We want to be able to keep growing. We also would like to turn the front building (currently a storage shed for used surfboards) into a shop to sell used-clothing. So anything people buy from here, they can bring back for credit or re-sell to us and then we can sell it to others. We already do this with surfboards and wetsuits, but we want to start doing it with clothing. Basically, we want to open a cool thrift store that has boardshorts, jackets, jeans, etc.–a surf thrift store. We’re actually working on a new website as well, where we are going to sell our stuff online. In essence, same stuff, just keep having fun.
Anything else you would like to say to the people of Marin?
The biggest thing, for sure, would just be thanks for supporting us. There are not many, if any, communities I would have the confidence to do this (open a shop) in, but we have always had such loyal customers that totally get what we are trying to do, that support us. Things like this just don’t usually work (small independently run businesses). Eventually all we’re going to have is Wal-Mart and Amazon.com as the only shopping options. Just start driving inland and you’ll see it. It’s cool that this community has parents who support their kids skating, surfing, doing art, and who like and support independent retailers, not because they are doing it as a favor, but because they truly believe in it. We just definitely appreciate customers that appreciate the positive things we are trying to do for the community.