Broadcasting from the corner of N 3rd St and Wythe Ave in Brooklyn, my good buddy Chris Gentile is having a good time. That’s the only way I can really put it. Smack in the middle of Williamsburg, his shop Pilgrim Surf + Supply feels more like a community hangout than a retail shop. Spinning records and selling surfboards, Pilgrim has become my first stop and a daily visit every time I make it to NYC (often with a six pack of Peroni in my hand from the corner shop across the street).
And Chris is also a good friend of VSTR… he was the first to stock us in New York, snapped some of our earliest images, and was a gracious host to the entire VSTR global crew when he invited Janka Nabay, a political refugee from Sierra Leone, to perform for a tight group of Brooklyn’s finest last June. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of talkin’ shop with Chris on all things Pilgrim. A man of great integrity, this is what transpired…
JM: This interview is about your shop, not you. But before we get started is there anything you would like to get off your chest? Anything you want to say?
CG: Yeah… I thought this was about the shop?
JM: The first time I met you; you took me surfing with a bunch of NYFD buff dudes, screamed at fools on the highway back, and had a few too many drinks closing down Hotel Delmano that very same evening. Is this a traditional Brooklyn welcome?
CG: I believe that was a Tuesday. If I’m correct than yes, that’s about right for a Tuesday welcome to Brooklyn.
JM: You do really good impersonations? I know they won’t translate in print, but did you ever consider a career in theatre or television? Were you a dramatic child?
CG: I grew up around some pretty hilarious adults so I needed to hold my own! I get a lot of material from family members! I don’t know why I’m good at impersonations. I love people’s idiosyncratic ticks and quirks… Its what makes us all unique and when people embrace those things they exude the healthiest levels of self respect! I know I’ve upset some people when I impersonate them but they have to understand that if I’m doing one of them its because I love them! I guess if I grew up in the Valley and not Rhode Island, acting might have been a potential path! I could have given Rob Schneider a run for his Money!
JM: Everything you do seems to have a strong personal connection for yoU… and on the heals of just opening up Pilgrim earlier this year, could you explain how your strong sense of family and community played a large role in this new creation?
CG: Community and Family is everything to this shop. Its who it belongs to really. And its where it gets itS content and direction from. The very reason the shop exists is because of those connections with our extended family and community of friends. Our community is a global one that extends way beyond Brooklyn.
JM: You call your new shop Pilgrim Surf + Supply, but from my perspective, you’re flipping the script on both the traditional idea of a surf shop and a better clothing store at the same time. Was this your intention?
CG: Yes. I think you’re right and it has everything to do with being awake and informed by our community, customer and audience. Our Intention and overriding conceptual approach to this brick and mortar shop is for it to be constantly evolving and collaborating with other brands, and designers. There are no rules to that either. It just has to fit. think in the current climate where everyone is rediscovering craftsmanship, tradition and the hand made, surfing is more relevant than ever because that’s one of the values embraced in the culture of surfing. Its also a value of almost every piece of “fashion” you’ll find in our shop.
JM: Where did the name Pilgrim come from?
CG: Pilgrim Ave. in Point Judith R.I. Three generations of my family fished from that road and in the early 60’s My uncle surfed that spot with his crew of friends. They were a part of the first group of surfers in Rhodie and it’s where I caught my first real wave when I was around 9-10 years old. Pilgrim has so many metaphoric possibilities in relationship to Surfing and fashion as well. The word feels warm to me. There’s something Humble and still compelling about what it is to be a Pilgrim… and that word belongs to know one group which is a value that I feel this shop has.
JM: Art, Creativity and good vibes seem to swirl around your store… when I am standing at the corner of N. 3rd St & Wythe in Williamsburg; it feels like the center of the universe. What landed you there?
CG: I guess its where my own personal “pilgrimage” dropped me off for the time being. I know that’s cheesEy but really, I never set out to own a retail store. I think that’s why I’m having so much fun with it!
JM: In a digital world, why does Pilgrim NOT have a multi-layered functioning web site with a massive ecommerce demand and up-to-the-minute Tumblr posts?
CG: Look… this is also an age where everyone can seemingly/virtually see it all through the digital lens of hyperspace… but they still can’t FEEL it… The web is a one dimensional experience. This is where I feel the physical world, the object is becoming more important/relevant to people… which justifies our physical existence and our non-existence online. This will change in time though… and by the time this is printed I think we’ll have our blog in place. Oh…and I’m absolutely in love with instagram. I love the sense of community, visual storytelling and spontaneity it generates… very cool!
JM: You’re a humble dude; always passing on the credit to others… is this to be attributed to a good upbringing? Or do your friends actually deserve the credit, and your just good a choosing them?
CG: Damn… I thought this was about the Shop! I attribute all of the small successes in my life to my friends, family and peers. And selfishly I get a buzz off of propping up my friends and seeing them do well! And yes, that’s my upbringing all the way… my family are blue collar folks and humble people that depend on each other and their neighbors in the everyday trials of life. I’m grateful for that upbringing!
JM: You’ve traveled the world, teaching, surfing and creating. Do these travels and experiences directly influence your shop and the product mix?
CG: Yes, 100%. and in ways that I’m probably not even aware of… and yet some are obvious like my love of weaving and textiles which is one of those things that has strong regional design vernacular.
JM: OK, let’s talk about the details in the shop. The walls seem to have a beveled three-dimensional texture that intersects perfectly into a ceiling that has troughs and crests, in perfect intervals, like the anatomy of a wave… is this even possible? How did you come up with this? How did you see it become a reality?
CG: It was a reaction to the space and to conversations I was having with my friends Rob and Chris that I built the store with. My approach to this space was to treat it like a sculpture using modest materials with a high degree of craft. And it is still evolving… and hopefully always will be.
JM: Finally crafted surfboards of all shapes and sizes line the entire south wall of your shop. They seem to be the heart and soul of your business. Could you talk about the shapers you work with and how you decide what you’re going to order?
CG: The tradition of surfboard building is such a rich one. In its purest form it is truly, by definition a folk tradition passed down generationally from master to apprentice…there aren’t many examples of an unbroken tradition like surfboard shaping left in our world and we’re committed to preserving it through Pilgrim. I refer to the boards in the shop as a library of surfboard design. I’d like to think that a person walks in and is inspired by these incredibly beautiful, highly functional, hand made surf craft while still knowing that they may not all be the right fit for them… but ultimately they can appreciate the whole selection.
JM: Vintage vinyl consistently spins behind the counter in the shop… what are the albums you are listening to at the moment?
CG: Oh man… the music… its so important to us. We have two bins of vinyl. One is full of Jazz, Brazilian bossa nova, post bossa nova and tropicalia. The other is filled with our friends music and relevant rock albums… Right now we’re listening to a lot of Janka Nabay from Sierra Leone, The Clean, Tim Mia…as I type I’m listening to Milton Nascimento’s album “Los Borges Clube Da Esquina” a must have!
JM: I notice that you speak to both men and women in your shop. In a surfing landscape that is predominantly hyper-masculine, this is a breathe of fresh air. As Pilgrim evolves, will your assortment continue to reflect this?
CG: It goes without saying. This shop will always speak to both gender’s equally!
JM: By the time this goes to print, you will be sharing your space with an establishment called Slick. How did this come about?
CG: My Friends and Landlords Rob and Ethan Herschenfeld approuched me in 2007 to open our Shop in their space which belong to a neighborhood legend, “Slick”. I never knew Slick’s real name but he had held down our location and his motorcycle repair shop from the late 50’S until he passed in 2007. He was a real character and friendly to me always. One of Rob’s ideas back then for the space was to take a small chunk of the back corner and open a café with his beans. Rob is one of the owners of the Brooklyn Roasting Company. To honor Slick’s legacy and name, Rob, Ethan and myself all agreed “Slick” was the right name for the café.
JM: Would you call Pilgrim Surf + Supply a family business?
CG: Yes… I guess, I would.
JM: What’s up with the skater dudes in the basement?
CG: Those are our friends KCDC. They were pushed out of their old space and in limbo while they found a new location. For 11 years they supported the Brooklyn skate community and have institution status… We gave them our downstairs for the summer to keep a little cash flow going and so the local skaters and groms had a spot to get gear. its been really fun having them and we’ll be sad when they move out in August.
JM: I know this is not about you, but you do have an alternate fine art career showing at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in NY and the Gregory Lind Gallery in San Francisco, among others. Any chance I can get you to draw the connection between your art world and the shop world if there is any?
CG: Yes… they’re both fantastic platforms for humility!
JM: In a bit of a rant, you once said there is no such thing as surf art, only art. Care to elaborate?
CG: What else is there to say.
JM: Did this interview get too personal for you?
CG: Yes… but I take everything personally. you know that!
JM: If you were going on a round-the-world global surf trip with multiple destinations, but you could only bring one board, what would it be?
CG: A 5’9″ quad fish.
JM: Short shorts or long shorts?
CG: Depends on the beach!
JM: New York, Rhode Island, Maine or Florida?
JM: You’ve been affectionately called the Silver Fox?
CG: Yes. I’ve finally arrived.
JM: Hard Body?
CG: Always in spirit.