A trifecta of unfortunate circumstances shuttered the doors of Freedom Surf Shop this week, but owner Dave Shotton is determined to keep his business alive.
“Breaks my heart,” Shotton said on Monday as he looked through old photographs inside the store on Laskin Road, including a framed one of him and his younger brother with their surfboards on the beach in Croatan, where he grew up.
Over the weekend, Shotton took down shelves along the shop walls and planned to load a storage container with display tables and his desk.
“I’ve been in tears,” he said.
A slew of financial woes, the coronavirus pandemic and a major road project outside his front door have nearly crushed him, but he’s not giving up.
“Any of the three would wipe you out,” Shotton, 54, said. “As a surfer, one thing we do is paddle back out.”
He’ll store the surfboards and box up the clothes until he can rent a new shop nearby within a few months. In the meantime, a friend offered to help him beef up the Freedom Surf website for online sales. Gift cards will be honored through the website.
Shotton’s troubles started four years ago, he says, but he hardly knew it until it was too late. Now, he’s embroiled in a $3 million civil lawsuit that he hopes will help him recover some of his losses.
Shotton bought Freedom Surf Shop in 2007 from former U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, who had opened it two years prior. The first 10 years were a success.
“We crushed it,” he said. “For a decade, we never bounced checks.”
Shotton invested a quarter of a million dollars in the business and was generating $1 million a year in revenue, he said. Now, Shotton is now facing a bank lien on his house. He lost the clout to order new products from vendors and a judge ordered him to vacate the store this week.
“He’s been through the ringer,” said his attorney Mike Joynes. “He’s going to fight through this.”
In 2017, according to Shotton, he hired a bookkeeper who mismanaged Freedom Surf Shop’s accounts and sent his finances into a downward spiral. The lawsuit that Shotton filed last week contends that accountant Maria Reich failed to pay bills, concealed information from him and misrepresented facts to vendors, banks, the state and the IRS.
Last spring, when the money problems were coming to a head, the coronavirus pandemic hit and the governor’s stay-at-home order kept shoppers away.
“That was really a dark time,” Shotton said. “I was lucky to make $4 a day.”
He was going to shut down the surf shop, but when the order was lifted in May, business boomed again. Everyone wanted to be outside and surfing was taking off.
Sales jumped 40% in June and 50% in July. He sold out of surfboard leashes. But by mid-August, Shotton was having a hard time restocking the shelves. The pandemic was affecting the supply chain, he said.
Then his landlord, Rigell, raised the rent, Shotton said. At the same time, the Laskin Road improvement project to remove the feeder lanes has made it a hassle to get to his shop. The road project will continue for two more years.
“That’s really what put the nail in the coffin,” said Brian Crist, who consigns his handmade stand-up paddle boards and balance boards at Freedom Surf Shop. He described Shotton’s recent misfortunes as “the perfect storm.”
One thing that Crist liked about Shotton’s store is that it’s rooted in surfing history.
Among the fixtures: Virginia Beach surfing legend Pete Smith, who could always be found in Freedom Surf Shop on Saturday afternoons socializing and selling his memorabilia.
Smith and Bob Holland opened the first surf shop in Virginia Beach on 22nd Street in 1963. Shotton displayed a surfboard above the front door that Smith caught a wave on when he was 5 years old.
“It’s similar to my shop years ago, just real casual and friendly,” Smith, 81, said in a phone interview Monday.
Shotton plans to reopen the store in a new location by May 1.
“There are so many people going through tough times right now,” Shotton said. “There has to be hope. I kept fighting. No matter what was thrown at me, I kept paddling.”
Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125, email@example.com