For those who haven’t heard of Mary Mills, she is the one of the first documented, black female surfers. She started skateboarding in the early 80s before most of you were born. She is a mat surfer, a drummer, an individual whom proudly flies her freak flag, and is knowaagble beyond her years.
Textured Waves did a great interview with Mary regarding surfing and life CLICK HERE. So, we decided to interview her regarding retail and the industry.
BTR: When you were a teenager you saw surfing for the first time on a T.V. show called the Wide World of Sports. Not knowing how to swim, you gravitated towards skateboarding. What was the first core skate shop you went to and how was the experience?
MM: Like so many black people from my generation, I am a product of busing. In Los Angeles during the 70s, there was voluntary busing rather than mandatory busing. So your parents could send you out of your neighborhood if they so chose. I ended up at a high school in West Los Angeles. About two blocks away from that school was Dogtown Skates (at least I think that was the name) skateboard shop on Olympic. Since we were allowed to leave the campus during lunch, I was always at that shop drooling and dreaming. That place was cool. I’m sure I was a curiosity to them. I don’t remember anyone being dismissive or critical of me there. (That was over 40 years ago so my memory fails me.)
BTR: The surfing itch never left and as you grew older it became time to scratch that itch. You’re known as one of the first documented, black women surfers along with Sharon Schaffer and Andrea Kabwasa. It’s fair to say, you didn’t fit the surfer stereotype . How was your first time going to a Surf Shop? Did you feel welcome?
MM: I don’t fit any stereotype. I’m a bona fide weirdo. I proudly let my freak flag fly. You know, I don’t remember ever feeling unwelcome at a surf shop. I don’t exactly remember the first time I went to one. I do remember, in my early years of surfing, surprising people at shops who assumed I was a newbie and then realized their mistake as they talked to me. No one was ever unkind. They just made assumptions. Frankly, I think that’s understandable. There weren’t, and still aren’t, a lot of surfers who look like me, Sharon and Andrea out there. But, you know, once I started surfing and hanging out at a particular surf shop, I was always welcome and accepted. More importantly, I learned a lot about surfing and the surfing culture from hanging out at surf shops. My favorite shop was Just Longboards in Hermosa Beach.
BTR: I feel like Skateboarding has become accepting of all types of people. No matter your gender, race, sexual orientation, body type, financial situation, you’re a skateboarder. Surfing is getting better at acceptance but I still feel there is a stereotypical surfer. Do you think surfers can learn anything from skateboarders to break that mold?
MM: This issue with that is that skating has always had a largely counter-culture reality and aesthetic. It took awhile for Hollywood to notice it and Hollywood movies can never do it justice. Surfing, on the other hand, became a big part of the culture in the 60s with the Beach Blanket movies and the Beach Boys. Surf magazines furthered that racial narrative of surfing being a lifestyle and pastime that only white people enjoyed. That exposure unfortunately created the surfing stereotypes that still exist today. Skating was harder to sell to the masses, so it remained underground and, in some ways, gritty. It’s easy to romanticize riding waves. It’s not so easy when your sport involves a lot of hitting the ground, losing skin and breaking bones. American culture never got a chance to ruin skate culture to that extent. It will take another generation or two for surfing to truly break down the racial stereotypes within the culture. Thankfully, social media allows people to see that surfers come in all shapes, sizes and colors. And let us all remember that surfing came to us from Polynesian cultures, from brown people. The surf media might forget to tell people that but I won’t.
BTR: We have talked a few times on social media and you’re a huge supporter of independent surf shops. Who are some of your favorite surf shops now and why?
MM: There aren’t a lot of surf shops left in L.A. I’m not a big fan of corporate shops. I stick to the small ones. I want my dollars to go to people rather than corporate profiteers. The two shops I go to are ET Surf in Hermosa Beach and Rider Shack, which sits between Culver City and Marina del Rey. ET is my favorite, to be truthful, because Just Longboards was a part of ET. So I know and love the culture of that shop. I watched Rider Shack grow from a tiny room into a beautiful surf shop. Jeff and Lacey, the owners, worked hard to establish an independent surf shop. They’ve done a kick ass job, too.
BTR: Back when I was a road rep there was a shop in Santa Cruz called Paradise Surf. I would talk to Sally (owner) about the problems with being a women surfer. She would tell me that brands don’t make products that are sized for women… they are sized for little girls. I read somewhere that you get your wetsuits from Reunion for that same reason. Fortunately, Reunion will size you and make custom suits to fit. Unfortunately this problem has led you to find a solution outside the shop. Do you run into this issue with any other surf products? What advice would you give brands that are designing products for women?
MM: The corporate surf brands are quite narrow in their focus. I don’t see how any grown woman can fit into any of the wetsuits that are churned out. I tend to blow out the shoulders. I mean, if you surf, you’re going to have shoulders that are wider than the norm. Why don’t the wetsuits accommodate that fact? I’m also somewhat curvy. Branded wetsuits just don’t fit my body. Frankly, I don’t think the corporate brands care what real surfers think so I have no advice for them. There are other, smaller brands that recognize female bodies vary in so many ways. It’s just a matter of them being heard above the din that is corporate surf brand advertising.
BTR: Lastly, Do you have any advice for all the young ladies out there that want to start surfing or skateboarding?
MM: Not really. Again, I’m kind of my own little, determined force of nature. I’ve always been athletic, so I’ve always been driven to do things that let me have fun outside. Now would be a good time to start surfing or skating though. There are so many newbies in the water that one more really won’t make much of a difference. I guess I would advise someone to, first, ask about the rules and culture. Costco has sent all of these kooks (a word I hate, but damn it fits now!) into the lineups, much to the detriment of the sport because these folks just don’t care to know that there are rules and a history to surfing. Second, go on Instagram and find other women who do the thing you want to try. Look at their accounts and learn. This is really the first generation to have role models that they can easily find. I have surfed with little people, folks with the use of only one arm, folks who had some form of blindness, etc. Just know you’re not the only one. You can find your tribe.