When I drive to the coast on Highway 20, I generally curse the tiny town of Philomath under my breath for forcing me to slow to a crawl. By the time I’ve passed the Dairy Queen, Ixtapa Mexican restaurant, and Eats and Treats gluten-free cafe, all I can think about is making it to the paper mill and the 35 mile per hour sign. As I roll impatiently through downtown, I’m more interested in scanning intersections for state troopers than I am in the shop windows of small businesses. But if I were to pay closer attention, I might notice a fabric store, an art gallery, an acupuncturist, a guitar builder, and a surf shop. That’s right. Landlocked Philomath, about 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean, is the home of Pura Vida Surf Shop. I made the short drive to Philomath to find out why.
Shop co-owner Robert Rube carved out an hour away from board construction and repair to explain why his shop has survived for 10 years in Philomath.
“Man, Philomath is kinda cool,” he said. “Everybody who goes to the central Oregon Coast goes through Philomath. We get Eugene residents. We get Corvallis. We get Albany, Lebanon, Sweet Home. We even get them down from Salem.”
When I look at a map, I can’t help but notice that Corvallis is also strategically located on the way to the coast. Our fair city also has about 50,000 more potential customers and a major university. For those reasons, Robert considered Corvallis as a possible location before deciding on Philomath a decade ago. But he found out what some of us already know: Corvallis can be expensive.
“The price of real estate is pretty high. When I looked at the cost of leasing property in Philomath, it was an ‘aha’ moment.” He went on to explain another concern. “I don’t want to focus strictly on the Corvallis resident or the OSU student, even though we want to service those folks.” In its current location, Pura Vida catches the college kids on their way to the beach, but isn’t vulnerable to the seasonal business drop-off common in Corvallis.
Pura Vida is on the way to the coast. But why wouldn’t potential customers just take their business to surf shops at the coast? According to Robert, there are no less than seven such shops in Seaside, Lincoln City, Newport, and Coos Bay. But he explained that his shop is better in one key aspect.
“We’re Oregon’s only one-stop surf shop. We build surf boards, repair surf boards, and sell surf boards all on the same site.” Robert explained that other shops do repairs off site or farm out the work. “Here, you can be part of the process the whole way through.”
Robert taught himself how to build and repair boards through trial and error, and became an expert along the way. In 1998, he formed Robert’s NW Surfboards, and plied his trade from a rented workshop near the Corvallis airport. In 2000, an unusual business opportunity presented itself and changed everything. “I signed a contract with Taco Del Mar. It started in Corvallis; I started building boards for them for interior display. They have a beach surf theme on the inside of their restaurants. I built about 250 of them, shipped them all over Canada and the United States. It was a pretty cool gig. It helped fund my dream of opening up a surf shop.” Counting the very real boards built to be displayed, he’s now made almost 700.
The dream came true on June 6, 2005 when Robert and his silent business partner Al Krieger opened the Pura Vida Surf Shop in its original Philomath location, just across the street from where it now stands. The shop managed to ride out the recession, thanks largely to the repair side of the business.
“People weren’t buying surfboards, but they sure as heck wanted their surfboards fixed. Which was good for us. Business went to the back of the shop, fixing boards. That’s what pretty much carried us through. At the end of every month, as long as I didn’t have to pull money out of my wallet and throw it at the shop, I was stoked,” Robert explained.
In 2014, Jim Dagata became the third partner. Co-owner of Animal Crackers in Corvallis, Dagata brings additional business acumen to the shop. He does marketing, sales, interior design, tech support, and networking. This allows Robert to focus on the repair and construction side of the business. With his help, Pura Vida has shown immediate growth. The shop posted its best January and February ever. They anticipate a 50% increase in sales this year over last.
What’s the one constant for the last decade? According to Robert, it’s how they treat their customers. “Everybody who has walked through those doors has felt as if they were family.”
At Pura Vita, you can buy or rent body boards, wake boards, skin boards, and stand-up paddle boards. You can buy repair kits, and they’ll teach you how to use them. They also carry and service skateboards and skateboard equipment. They have flip-flops and ukuleles, too.
Pura Vida Surf Shop is located at 1327 Main Street in Philomath and is currently open Wednesday through Saturday and also Monday. On Tuesdays, they’re out surfing. For info, visit www.pvsurfshop.com.
By Dave DeLuca