Salty Stories: Mollusk Surf Shop’s John McCambridge
by Mark Lukach
John McCambridge is an artist, a surfer, and a big, conceptual thinker. He is the man behind Mollusk Surf Shop, which first opened in the Outer Sunset in San Francisco, and also has sister stores in Brooklyn and Venice Beach. I met up with John inside his newest branch of Mollusk, located at Voyager in the Mission District of San Francisco, which is designed like a submarine.
What do you do?
I’m an artist and a surfer. I used to actually make a lot of art, and focused on animations, paintings, and t-shirt designs. But more and more I am moving away from smaller projects, and instead I oversee larger installations of projects, like the sub we’re standing in here. I guess I’m sort of moving toward being an art director of sorts.
What is your typical day like?
Well, I have a kid, so that takes up a lot of my typical day. I go by Mollusk every day, which is located close to my house. And of course, I check the surf regularly, and if there’s waves, I’ll go surf. Lately I’ve been surfing my bonzer a lot and really enjoying it.
What is your most memorable ocean experience?
This is more of a broad way of answering the question, but when I turned 30, I went down to New Zealand by myself for about 6 weeks. I bought a van and lived out of it, and drove around looking for perfect point breaks. At that point in my life I had already dabbled in t-shirt designs a bit, but down there, doing nothing but surfing and sitting quietly by myself, not talking to people much, I thought a lot about what I wanted to do, and decided it was to open a shop. I came home, and lucked into a good space in my neighborhood, and started Mollusk. It was a good 30th birthday present to myself.
John, along with his collaborative art partner Jay Nelson, are legends within the surf art world. Their love of labor, Mollusk Surf Shop, has undeniably helped to influence the popular shift towards all things retro in surfing. While surfing has had many incarnations through its history–surfer as rebel, surfer as hippie, surfer as punk rocker–we are in an era that emphasizes the surfer as artist, and Mollusk epitomizes that, with an emphasis on style and creative expression above all else. At the store, they sell artwork, original clothing designs, and lots of unique surfboards, including throwback board designs and even finless alaias, like what the ancient Hawaiians used to ride.
“When I opened Mollusk, pretty much everyone out here surfed basic thrusters, and bigger boards for big surf. There were virtually no small, fishy boards around, so I went right into that niche.”
John is pivotal in all three of Mollusk’s pursuits: surfing, clothing, and art. When we met, the conversation predictably centered around his latest endeavor, the opening a new store Mollusk mini-store inside a wooden submarine.
“I’ve opened other branches of Mollusk elsewhere, and I didn’t want to just repeat myself with this one. I wanted to do something fun. So I brainstormed with Jay, and within about 10 minutes, we came up with the idea of a submarine to house our store. We’ve worked together so long that we operate that way. Ideas pop up pretty quickly.”
Most of the construction was done by Jay Nelson, who has been making unique wooden modifications to vehicles for a few years. They started by using 2×2’s to construct the shell of the sub, inspired by the skeleton of a whale. “It was really flimsy at first. Really flimsy.” That is, until they added old sections of door skins–thin pieces of plywood–which gave the sub much more stability.
The details are pretty exceptional. The sub is lined with windows, which look out into a blue painted wall that really makes it feel like you’re underwater. There’s a hatch on the top, and a bunk bed along the left side of the sub. Dominating the interior is a periscope, which you can (and should) look into. I don’t want to ruin the surprise and tell you what you’ll see inside.
John is casual about things that most people take seriously, but serious when others are casual. High up on his list are creativity and fun.
“You know, I don’t know if this shop is going to do well or make money. I don’t really have a master plan, or some spreadsheet of ‘how to do well.’ My ethos is instead pretty much, ‘well that will be fun,’ so I go with that. Which is probably pretty dumb.”
Or not dumb at all.
The Mollusk at Voyager is located at 365 Valencia Street, between 14th and 15th Streets. If you’re in San Francisco, it’s totally worth a visit, so you can find out what’s in the periscope, and go inside a wooden submarine store.