HOLMES BEACH -- If being a beachapreneur were such a thing, Jim Brady could have claimed that title at age 16.
While attending Manatee High School in 1964, Brady and a friend started West Coast Surf Shop in a strip mall at 5307 Gulf Drive. He wasn't sure if he was going to ride the wave or crash with it that first year.
"I could have counted the cars that went by my store on one hand," Brady joked. "But luckily, we just started to sell a lot of surfboards, and the price of surfboards back then were from $130 to $200."
He picked up a part-time job as a bus boy at Pete Reynard's Restaurant on Holmes Beach and partnered with a friend to open up the store -- what else was a teenager in the '60s going to do? Give up?
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"I was surfing, and we really didn't think about it that way, we just thought it was a cool thing to do," Brady said. "We started with $3,000 between us and started with a few surfboards and T-shirts, and that's all there was in the industry back then."
Now West Coast Surf Shop, 3902 Gulf Drive, is celebrating 50 years in business, and is one of the oldest surviving surf shops in Florida -- and the oldest on the Gulf Coast. They're still with the times, featuring Ray Bans and Oakley sunglasses in cases, trendy swim and surf wear, flip flops and plenty of boards.
Brady moved to Manatee County in 1963 from Texas, where he grew up in San Antonio and got his first taste of surfing at Texas' Gulf beaches after getting a surf board for his 15th birthday. His father, who was in the military, moved here and took a job with Honeywell.
Brady met his future wife, Ronee, while -- naturally -- surfing off of Manatee Public Beach in 1968. They married a year later, and have been inseparable since.
In 1979 when the store moved from a strip mall, he found the perfect location for the surfing business -- at a major intersection beside a public beach entrance. The 2,400-square-foot store located upstairs also features vacation rental apartments and at one time served as their home before they moved to Perico Island.
Their prime spot is almost like an unofficial visitors center with folks asking for directions, tips for restaurants, and surf spots.
"We know from one end of the island to the next," said Ronee Brady.
And they also have to be amateur meteorologists, keeping track of surf conditions. On a rainy Friday, Jim Brady knew there wouldn't be a lot of churn from the system passing over Anna Maria.
"It's pretty calm today. This system's over with -- the winter time is the best time of year to go surfing on the Gulf Coast," Jim Brady said. "Springtime's OK because it's windy, and summertime's dependent upon storms. Plus you're only 3 1/2 hours from coast-to-coast, so people go back and forth quite a bit."
Now there's an extensive line of swimwear from brands like Billabong, Roxy, Quicksilver and Maajy, plus surf boards, paddleboards, skim boards and penny boards for those who prefer land over sea that's been able to provide a boutique line thanks to ordering straight from California. Depending on the quality of the board, today's prices can be relatively inexpensive, or range from $500 on up.
It's the swimwear and clothing lines that have really made a change in the surf shop industry, Brady said.
"Back then, it was real minimal," he said. "There were no manufacturers of swimwear, hardly."
Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore worked there when she was 16 and loved the place so much, that not only were Jim and Ronee Brady in her wedding in 1982, but so was their merchandise.
"All of our clothes were from the surf shop, so we had a very surf-shop type of wedding years ago," Whitmore said.
The guys wore slacks from the shop, the girls had sundresses and flowers to match and, just to make it dressy, the men wore leather sandals.
Whitmore even lived in the apartments above the shop in 1993, and her daughter Janae worked there and could put together a skateboard and surf board. The island community was so close-knit with that shop, islanders could run a tab, she said.
"I had one for years," Whitmore said, laughing. "You don't see businesses like that anymore."
The shop has had its own line of apparel for decades, and Brady, who resembles David Crosby without the fullness in his mustache and ponytail, is often seeing wearing his shop's shirts.
Paddleboard surfing is becoming a growing segment allowing surf shops to thrive, he added.
"It originated in Hawaii because a lot of your old surfers lost that pop to get up real quick on waves," Brady said. "A lot of them had knee and back troubles, so now they can paddle into the surf."
Paddleboard surfing is gaining a youthful following including Brady's own family. His granddaughter Izzie Gomez, 14, is ranked third in the world for women and grandson Giorgio Gomez, 18, is ranked 21st in the world on the men's world tour.
Hixon's Surf Shop in Jacksonville and Little Hollywood in Miami have closed. Ron Jon Surf Shop opened in 1959 in New Jersey and opened its first Florida store in Cocoa Beach in 1963, celebrating its 50 years last year.
During the '70s when Ron Jon wanted to expand, West Coast Surf Shop was approached to become a part of a franchise, but Brady turned them down.
"Now there are some manufacturers coming through buying some of the stores up, but with the economy, that has kind of slowed down," he said.
West Coast itself went through an expansion phase through the years. He's had a successful store in Fort Myers he sold in the 1980s that's still open. But all of the others -- one store in 1968 on Siesta Key, a wind surf shop on Cortez, another shop in Bradenton Beach and even a shop in Puerto Rico in 1966 for less than a year -- have closed.
"I learned a hard lesson you can't be an absentee owner in a foreign country," he said.
Holmes Beach always seemed to outperform all the others.
"My philosophy now is, if you've got one good store, stick with that," he said.
The Bradys are holding out on a party until they retire and instead are having a sale.
"Who knows when that's going to happen -- a retirement party could happen in two years, five years -- I don't know," Jim Brady said.
The store is on the market, looking for another owner, but the Bradys hope they can wait for their grandchildren to settle down from surfing and take over the shop.
"We've been fairly lucky," Jim Brady said. "Anna Maria has a really healthy economy."
Whitmore knew that the shop has been on the market for years, but hopes her friends will find a true surfer to take over one day to make the Bradys and community proud.
"They're a hard-working couple, and an institution in Manatee County," Whitmore said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.