Words by Mark Bishop
Cast your mind back to early November 1990. Kelly Slater had not won a world title and still had hair. Surfers Against Sewage was 7 months old. Nirvana were about to explode onto the car stereos and bedrooms of an unsuspecting world. Home Alone was poised to take over Christmas TV for the next 20 years and somewhere in a dark corner of Fore Street in Exeter, Devon, a surf shop called Ocean Blue opened its doors to the public. At the helm was Richard (Rich) Monk, a fresh faced 18 year old, who just loved surfing and his mates.
Rich had fallen in love with the sea after his family moved from Shropshire when he was 11. He first surfed at the legendary(?) 2ft messy break of Sandy Bay, Exmouth, East Devon at 15 and was hooked! “I bought my first board off my Aunt’s boyfriend. It was a little 5’10 twin fin called Dirty Deeds, absolutely the wrong board for me, but i didn’t care, it was a surfboard! My first wetsuit? It was a Rip Curl, they use to stand up on their own then! We use to catch the bus down to Sidmouth in the hope there would be waves, had no idea whatsoever, but it didn’t matter, we just wanted to get in the sea!”
His late teens followed a common path taken by members of the British surf scene of the pre internet, pre surf forecast and pre cheap flight age – “In May 1990 I passed my driving test and bought a little Austin Morris with a walnut dash, it had a stereo well cassette player and we’d pile in boards, suits and the clothes we were wearing and go to the beach. Radio blaring out The Police, The Beatles, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, then all of a sudden Nirvana arrived and that was like BOOM!!!!! We didn’t care! I was working weekends at the motorway services and got paid around £65 for that, which was good money back then. That funded the whole summer, I worked 2 days, then hit the beach for 5 days, was good times, innocent times, use to kip in me car, it was ace man! I bought my first proper board from City Surf before that summer of fun, and that was it, learned to surf proper and I was off”
At the end of that summer Rich started working at City Surf, he spent his days talking surfing with friends old and new, “couldn’t be happier”. Then one day in September he was told the shop was going to shut in October and there was a real threat that he would have to get ‘a proper job’! Well, fear brings the best out of us, so with a bit of financial help from his mum and dad and a family friend, Rich’s salty journey began.
In November 1990 Ocean Blue was born, and was an immediate success, the early 90’s surf boom had just started, shops on the high street were flourishing as young people had disposable cash and an appetite for anything surf related. In May 1995 Ocean Blue was rebranded as Saltcity and moved to its current location. The rest as they say is history.
As the 90s and early 2000s progressed, the shop went from strength to strength “along the way Urban Surfer, Harbour Sports and a couple of other surf shops opened, but they were more surf boutiques jumping on the surf wave of the 90’s rather than hardcore shops, it was big business back then”. Rich’s combination of enthusiasm, humour and knowledge meant that Saltcity was developing a cult following and as a result times were good. “My shop is where I meet my mates, old and new, everyone who comes in the door isn’t a new customer, they are a new friend”.
Although consumer’s shopping habits were starting to move off the high street towards online retailers, Rich’s friends remained loyal, and while the other surf shops (along with many independents) came and went, Saltcity remained. Then in 2008 the recession hit and Rich estimates £83,000 was wiped off the business’ value almost overnight. “Before the recession, business was very good, solid and consistent, then the word recession was mentioned and the bottom fell out of it, bloody ruined everything. Before the crash all the big companies gave me credit, edged me to take on more stock, I didn’t want to lose the major accounts, so I did. Then BANG! They all wanted paying back!”
“The recession also changed shopping habits,” adds Richard, “Shopping changed after the word recession was said eight years ago. The week between Christmas and New Year used to be my busiest and it would carry me through January, February and March, but that’s not the case anymore”. While Richard doesn’t bemoan the success of online retailers he openly admits he is pretty much “computer illiterate” so he has been slow to embrace the possibilities that the internet holds. His first foray into online retailing left a sour taste when a rogue site, which has nothing to do with the shop, was set up on his old domain www.saltcity.co.uk .
Rich is old school and still believes the most important element of retail is the personal touch but that being said, he now makes full use of ebay and facebook and the 1700+ facebook followers for the shop and 2000+ friends bears testimony to all his hard work, sound advice and great hugs (!) down the years. It has become tradition to send him your surf holiday pictures with you in a Saltcity T-shirt or Hoody and Saltcity bumper stickers and bags are popping up from Indo to Iceland! He has also developed another following for his uplifting, satirical and on occasion poetic posts!
Fast forward to last Friday, January 6th. Rich posted that he may have to sell his beloved Saltcity van to make up the shortfall of a poor Christmas sales period. To say the response was amazing is an understatement. Amidst a huge outpouring of support a crowd funding page with an aim to raise £500 for a new website and online shop was set up. The £500 was achieved 3 hours later! So the target was extended to £5000 to prevent Rich from selling his van. 3 days later the amount raised was just over £4000!
His Salt City family has rallied around him in a truly inspirational manner. He has received hundreds of messages of support and the crowdfunding link was shared over 500 times in the first day! He had one of his busiest Saturdays ever when people came to the shop from all around to buy whatever they could to help, and the crowdfunding link has been launched into the twittersphere and been picked up and shared by Andrew Cotton amongst others. I could try and explain how it made Richard feel but I don’t think I have the literary capacity to do so. I shall simply relay the transcript of his facebook status from Saturday 7th January at approximately midnight:
“All I was gonna do was maybe sell me van. I’ve been through a bloody kitchen roll in that shop today. I’ve never sold so many Saltcity T Shirts and Hoodies in one day. Facebook went bonkers, I’ve tried to keep up but I can’t. I’ve got a new domain name. www.saltcityexeter.co.uk. ( Ya robbin git won’t be nickin’ this one). I’ve got a new website and shop coming. I’ve got a Twitter account (watchout, ya think James Blunts good ) And four of you ( Kate, Luke, Mark and Hass) have worked tireless and selflessly throughout the day and evening, building a crowd funding platform, and all the above to help eye climb out me cesspit and drag my little arse into the 21st Century.
The rest of you poured in and bought, hugged, cried and heaped words of encouragement and love, though here. Even me ole mate Grombo, who offered to buy me van, and let me use it until he comes back off his jollys in April and then pay him back. The list goes on. I cannot express how much this has meant to me man. You’ve all shown you don’t want me to go. This really is all I want to do, it’s all I’ve ever known. My soul is in that shop and she runs through my veins with a passion. It’s where me mates come and new ones are made. All I can really say is. Thank you so very very much.
I love you, I really do. And. I know you love me. Love and peace you beauties. Thank you again”
I can now happily report that the van is safe and there is a new website and online shop www.saltcityexeter.co.uk is under construction as we speak, Rich is being given a lesson or two in business strategy and together we are doing our best to ensure that there is still plenty of life in this old sea dog yet!
Rich met his fiancée Helen in 2001 and their son Archie was born in 2005 and Evelyn followed in 2007. “ Before I met Helen and had the kids, it was just me having a laugh, making a living doing what I love, but now it’s bigger than that. There are three of them about to take one on the head and I’m on the jet-ski!”
When I asked what he wants from the future, he replied “It’d be nice to surf with the kids one day and I’ve promised Helen a wedding at some stage, but I want to do this Mark, it’s all I’ve ever known and all I ever really wanted to do.”
I’m sure we all agree that a world without independent surf shops is not a world worth living in, but a world where a community selflessly rallies around their mate to save his surf shop definitely is!
The crowdfunding page can be found at http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/salt-city-new-website-and-online-shop
The Facebook group for the shop can be found here https://www.facebook.com/groups/35236826867/