When Joe Nuzzo opened the Suncoast Surf Shop, it was one of the only buildings on the southern edge of Treasure Island. From its sandy wooden porch, you could look across Gulf Boulevard, where the beautiful blue Gulf of Mexico shimmered in the morning sun and beckoned surfers to grab their boards and ride the waves. Surfing was – and is – all about that promise of what might be.
Today, of course, you can’t see the beach from Gulf Boulevard anywhere on Treasure Island. The view was obliterated by development decades ago.
But the Suncoast Surf Shop remains, 51 years after Nuzzo scraped together the $1,000 down payment on a 1920s-era shack with jalousie windows, a wobbly one-room structure that had previously housed a TV repair shop.
At 74, he is the white-haired granddaddy of the East Coast surf scene, and the unofficial mayor of Treasure Island, a living legend known and admired by several generations of surfers, retailers, politicians, musicians and beach people.
He was a 22-year-old airplane mechanic, ex-Navy, when he opened the first incarnation of the Suncoast Surf Shop, in a place far off the beach that he rented for $50 per month. He drove a beat-up Volkswagen van painted stem to stern with flowers, and slept in the store.
It was 1966. “I was just doing it for the lifestyle and the fun,” Nuzzo smiles. “I had a dozen T-shirts, a couple surfboards, some wax and some stickers, and that was it. Whatever money I made, I’d spend as fast as I got it in.”
Nuzzo’s mother ran a small grocery store on Treasure Island; that had been the extent of his business training.
“Every so often, I’d put a sign on the shop that said ‘I’m gone surfin.’ I’d see people out and around and tell them where the store was. I didn’t know what a business card was. I’d get surf movies and we’d watch them in the shop. That got people stoked up – we’d drink a little wine, get a little sideways, and people started buying boards.”
That first place lasted less than a year. The landlord and the city, Nuzzo says, grew suspicious of him and his shaggy clientele, and evicted the Suncoast Surf Shop.
“I didn’t know you could fight eviction,” he laughs. “I thought that was the end.”
But he had, without trying too hard, discovered a void. Although the moderate Gulf waves couldn’t compete with the big boys on the Atlantic side of Florida, they were more than enough to warrant a surf culture. And in 1966, no one was selling surfboards on the west coast.
He raised the $1,000 down payment on the TV shop by selling $3 “memberships” to a club he called the Suncoast Surf Syndicate. “You got a card, saying you’ll abide by the rules and be a good kid, and a T-shirt,” Nuzzo remembers.
It was the high school kids, he says, that came through for him. By the hundreds. Thus was born the Pinellas County surfing community.
“I didn’t understand checking accounts,” Nuzzo says. “I didn’t understand that you could borrow money. I didn’t understand a lot about business, other than I had to come up with $93 a month. So in order to do that, I put in a pool table, a pinball machine and a jukebox. That made enough money to pay the mortgage. And the electric bill was nothing back then. Property taxes were hardly anything.”
In time, almost inadvertently, he became a businessman. The $6,250 mortgage was paid off in five years. “I got to have fun along the way, too. Most people retire when they’re 65. Every other month or so, I’d go to Barbados or Costa Rica, somewhere, on a surfing adventure. And have somebody watch my store while I’m away for two weeks.”
His 1970s misadventures with Jimmy Buffett are the stuff of beach legend.
He’s never had a business partner, unless you count Oceanside Surfboards’ Bill Feinberg, the Cocoa Beach craftsman whose who believed in Nuzzo and his vision, and began giving him custom boards on credit. Nuzzo always made a profit, and always paid Feinberg back.
Nuzzo remembers when a salesman from Hang Ten, then the country’s biggest supplier of surf-related clothing and accessories, walked into the shop. “He was wearing a white belt with a big chrome buckle, long pants with a perfect crease, and the ugliest white shoes,” Nuzzo says, howling at the memory. “He told me he sold to two or three shops on the east coast, and to some in the Carolinas, and that he’d started hearing about us. So he came to sell to me.
“I told him to change his clothes, and come back when he looked like he belonged in a surf shop.”
The man did, and a lengthy and profitable partnership resulted.
The Suncoast Surf Shop had virtually no competition until the 1980s, when the proliferation of tourist swimwear shops, few of them locally owned, began.
Nuzzo lost $500,000 in inventory – none of it insured – in a 1995 fire, caused by a faulty neon sign out front. He received only $42,000 in insurance money for the building, but used it for lumber. His friends in the community – and there were many – pulled together, in true It’s a Wonderful Life fashion, and re-built the shop gratis. He was open for business again three months after the fire.
At its peak, the Suncoast Surf Shop was grossing $1.5 million per year. Today, Nuzzo says, a good year is half a million. By far, their biggest sellers are SUPs – stand-up paddleboards.
He bemoans the current generation’s lack of interest in surfing. “The world is becoming fat people playing video games,” he says.
He’s fielded numerous offers to sell the building and the business. Located at the intersection of Treasure Island and Sunset Beach, it’s primo real estate. “It’s still not for sale,” he grins. “It’s a little bit of history and a little bit of lifestyle. And I’ve got great employees.”
He’s been married and divorced twice. Nuzzo says he lost nearly everything he owned in the second divorce, 15 years ago, and had to re-finance the business for $500,000. “So until I’m about 85 or 90, I’m going to be paying $4,000 a month in mortgage,” he figures. He shrugs.
He lives off-site now, with his 16-year-old son Jonah.
In the works for July 1 is Nuzzo’s “Seventy-fifth Birthday, Retirement and Bon Voyage” party.
For Nuzzo, that word “retirement” simply means he’ll be spending hardly any time at all in the Suncoast Surf Shop. “I could probably be here every day and make more money, because people come to see me,” he admits. “And when they don’t see me, a lot of times they leave. If I need to, I’ll get a cardboard cut-out of me, with my hand up and a smiley face.”
But the shop doesn’t sell as many boards as it did in the good old days, and visitors can go to any number of those swimwear, T-shirt and souvenir shops on the beach. Nuzzo knows his employees – they’re like family to him – have got things covered.
“Yeah, we’re struggling,” he says. “I could come back to work, and let everybody go and not have to struggle. But that would kill me.”
Surf industry by the Numbers
Annual surfing industry revenue: $7.29 billion
Annual hard good sales (surfboards, skateboards, and accessories): $1.56 billion
Annual surfing Wetsuit sales: $119.4 million
Annual surf Footwear sales: $1.6 billion
Stand up Paddleboard (SUP) annual sales: $18.5 million