Considering UCSD’s sunny SoCal allure, longboarding down a crowded hill from Peterson Hall to Price Center during peak hours is practically a rite of passage for new students.
And, back in the good old days, students could even trek to Muir Surf and Sport — tucked in a dark alleyway behind El Mercado (may its smothered nachos rest in peace) — for a 10-minute lesson and a new board.
After Outback Adventures — a university-sponsored, student-run organization that rents outdoor equipment, runs discounted wilderness trips and offers classes — opened its own recreational sports shop in Price Center last winter, it seemed the UCSD campus wasn’t big enough for the both of them. In fear it would lose business to Outback, Muir Surf and Skate shop moved to Pacific Beach last March to take a stab at life outside of UCSD.
“Outback Adventures felt that Muir [Surf and Sport] was redundant,” said Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Life, Gary Ratcliff, . “It was a duplication of what Outback provided as a service. We are not inclined to endorse off-campus services when the campus is already running the similar services.”
According to owner Scott Lembach, Muir Surf and Sport had ties with the same brands who were looking to do business with Outback Adventures. Additionally, skate vendors have specific regulations about how many venues they sell to within a small vicinity. With university support, Outback Adventures could offer those vendors a better deal than what Lembach could afford.
Lembach said he was under the impression that the new Outback Adventures Surf Shop would focus more on the sale of equipment, which would threaten his own customer base — a primary reason for his departure. Thus, he said he was surprised and disappointed when he recently found out that the Outback store ended up offering mostly apparel.
“Students do miss having a skate shop,” Dean of Student Affairs at Muir College Patty Mahaffey said. “We feel there is a niche for the skating culture on campus, and the shop was popular for people who needed their skateboards fixed or to learn safety tips.”
Like most recent graduates, Lembach’s shop has had a tough time getting used to things on the outside. It faces a difficult economy, a new demographic of customers and a new beach town full of competition.
Since its reopening in March 2009 in Pacific Beach, the store has changed quite a bit. According to Lembach, sales have been difficult to keep up. He attributes the retail slump to the poor economy and the loss of on-campus customers — who never failed to pour in at the beginning of Fall Quarter in search of speedier between-class transportation.
Over the summer, Lembach scissored the store’s name to Muir Skate Shop and decided to drop its line of surfing gear.
“You got to have momentum to have a surf shop,” Lembach said. “We lost that momentum because we’re starting all over again.”
Shoehorned between consignment shops and frozen-yogurt joints on the lively Garnet Avenue, Muir Skate Shop is just as small and cramped as it was on campus, except now it boasts a back-room ramp on which local boarders can grind, carve and shred to their heart’s content.
Lembach recently revamped Muir Skate Shop’s Web site and moved most of his business online. Within two weeks of its launch, www.muirskate.com was bringing in nearly 80 percent of Lembach’s sales.
If the shop doesn’t pull through its slump and see increased sales soon, Lembach said he might have to run the entire enterprise from his garage.
Of course, this is not the Muir Skate Shop that Lembach envisioned back in 2005, when he took a chance on a vacant space in Muir College and opened up shop at a research university known predominately for science and engineering. It didn’t take long for Lembach’s genial personality and the shop’s prime pick of Rainbow sandals, video games and longboards to keep business trafficking all day long.
According to Mahaffey, Muir conducted a student survey when it was trying to determine what business would best benefit college residents.
“The survey results indicated that they wanted to see a surf shop in that space,” said Mahaffey.
According to Mahaffey, a combination of forces drove Muir Skate Shop from its popular perch last March. Renovations to the Muir College quad over the summer would have temporarily driven the skate shop from its digs, and the impending arrival of the Outback Adventures Surf Shop further discouraged Lembach from holding onto his spot.
In 2004, Outback Adventures started scoping out a location for a new retail branch in Price Center. With the expansion, Outback hoped for a more visible presence on campus, turning student attention to the outings and events they hold regularly.
The Student Life committee, a group of administrators in charge of green-lighting campuswide funding allocations, approved the Outback business venture. Once the space opened up in Spring Quarter 2009, Outback Adventures Surf Shop began preparing to open its doors in the central hub of campus.
The space where Muir Skate Surf and Sport once stood — along with the rest of Muir’s student-life facilities — is currently under construction. There are no known plans for refilling the space at the moment, though Mahaffey said she plans to survey students again once construction of the Muir Student Center has wrapped.
Meanwhile, Lembach has kept on three UCSD alumni as part-time employees. He said he’s maintained strong relationships with old student regulars who now venture out to PB for worn-down wheel replacements and other boarding needs. Now that his business is more centrally located within the San Diego community, Lembach also caters to students from the University of San Diego and San Diego State University — and any other Pacific Beach residents who happen to peek their heads in the door.
Lembach said he hopes he can get Muir Skate Shop back on the grind by promoting their curiously academic name around San Diego and settling into his Pacific Beach digs for the most homey feel possible.
Readers can contact Gloria Wu at [email protected]