The Origin of Ambush: A Tribute to the Shops that Inspired Us – Part 1 of 4

Honus Wagner is widely recognized as one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. Wagner was one of the first five members inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and his face adorns the rarest and most valuable baseball card of all time.  His dramatic influence on the sport of baseball can still be seen today.  But, did you know that Honus Wagner was also one of the key influences on Ambush Board Co.?

One of the things about Ambush Board Co. that I am most proud of is our history.  The past 17+ years has written an intriguing story that most of the loyal Ambush Union are at least peripherally aware of.  But, many don’t know the back story of how Ambush became Ambush long before there was such a thing as Ambush.  Nature and nurture ensures that humans carry a piece of their parents on with them as they grow up.  Similarly, Ambush was built on the legacies of all the shops that we identified with as kids, as adolescents, and onto adulthood.  Each shop was an influencer in their own way and all left an indelible mark on what would become Ambush Board Co.  In an effort to promote the soul of the core shop moving forward, I want to pay tribute to those shops that played a major role in the founding of Ambush Board Co.  As the Winston Churchill (or Edmund Burke or George Santayana) quote says, “those who don’t know their history are destined to repeat it.”  In my estimation, those who do know their history are destined to build on it.

 

Chuck Morrow, owner, co-founder, and patriarch of Ambush Board Co. grew up poor in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.  His mother, Marijana (no, not what you are thinking of) emigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia as a refugee at the end of World War II.  As a single mother with a language barrier, Marijana struggled to make ends meet.  Often times, dinner would be an onion steamed down to an edible form and sandwiched between two pieces of white bread.  It would be an understatement to say that Chuck didn’t go shopping much as a kid.  But, when he did, he made the most of it.  He took in the whole experience and made it a family event.

Honus Wagner opened a specialty sporting goods store in downtown Pittsburgh in 1919, roughly two years after he retired as a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The store immediately became a cultural epicenter for kids looking for the latest mitt, ladies shopping for tennis equipment, and fans of Honus Wagner the player.  All would all lay claim that this was “their” shop.  To customers of the boutique, Honus Wagner was more than a store.  Shopping there meant that you were someone, you were a Pittsburgher.

 

Honus Wagner Sporting Goods c. 1919

Honus Wagner Sporting Goods c. 1919

The Now Defunct Honus Wagner Sporting Goods c. 2011

The Now Defunct Honus Wagner Sporting Goods c. 2011

 

“Honus Wagner sold gear that you couldn’t find just anywhere,” recalls Chuck. “When you bought shoes from there, you felt special because you had something that other kids in the neighborhood didn’t have.  And, when you shopped at Honus Wagner, you felt just as good about the place you bought the shoes from as the shoes themselves.  You got to tell people that you got your shoes from Honus Wagner.”

As a retailer, Chuck aims at mirroring the feeling he had as a kid in Honus Wagner for his customers at Ambush Board Co.

“You’ve got to give people an experience they can relate to,” Chuck adds. “Honus Wagner was the store that changed they way I viewed retail.  That place made me feel at home.  I want our customers to feel the same way in our store.”

Ownership of Honus Wagner changed hands several times over the years, but that homey, family vibe lived on throughout the decades.  It’s incredibly difficult to maintain that family business feel in a business that isn’t run by a family.  That isn’t a problem for Aqua East Surf Shop in Neptune Beach, Florida.

 

Aqua East Neptune Beach c. 2009

Aqua East Neptune Beach c. 2009

 

Sandy Forsyth had just graduated high school when he opened up Aqua East in 1973.  Florida has always been wave-starved, so growing the surf community was a little more challenging than on the wave rich coast of California.  So, he did it the old fashioned way.  Sandy promoted surfing through contests, clinics, and surf camps and quickly grew his business into one of the most successful shops on the East Coast.  Now Aqua East has two massive locations that make Ambush look small (17,000 sq ft and 13,000 sq ft, respectively – Ambush is 12,000 sq ft).  Sandy died in 2005 from a rare form of cancer.  Since his passing, daughter Shauna Forsyth Moore and her four siblings have kept the business open and successful.

In his college years, Chuck became somewhat of a gypsy.  One of the stops on his path was Jacksonville Beach, Florida, where Chuck found surfing.  At this point, Aqua East had been established as THE surf shop on the First Coast.  As a new surfer alone in a new town, Chuck looked to them for guidance on everything from surfboard designs to surf spots to local watering holes.  The guys at Aqua East never looked at him as an outsider or some inland kook from Pennsylvania.  They embraced him as a fellow surfer, no matter how new he was to the sport.

I, personally, first had the opportunity to shop at Aqua East in September 0f 1999.  I was down in St. Augustine chasing Hurricane Floyd.  I wish I could tell you that the waves were epic, but the storm was too close and everything was a mess.  My leash broke two hours into the first session and there was no way I was surfing those conditions without a leash.  I hurried into Aqua East to grab a new one and get back in the water, but the size and scope of their store kept me in there for way too long.  At the time, Ambush had yet to move into its current building.  We were still a strip mall store of only about 4,000 sq ft.  So a store of this magnitude had my jaw on the floor.  Once I got home, I knew I had some work to do if Ambush was going to be on their level.  And, in the 15 years since that trip, I always pop in one of their stores when I’m in town to see how things are going.

Aqua East has always been an inspiration for me and the way I use events to keep the skate and wake scenes in Georgia alive and well.  Just like Sandy pioneered the surfing community in Jacksonville Beach, Ambush has sought to do the same with skateboarding and wakeboarding in Kennesaw.  Until we opened Ambush in the summer of 1997, wakeboarding basically didn’t exist outside of Orlando and pockets of California (The Delta, Canyon Lake).  And skateboarding was a tiny set of people with no young skaters coming up behind them.  I used (and continue to use) the same formula that Sandy implemented successfully for over 30 years to keep our scene alive and our shop going in the right direction.

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