“This Must Be the Place”: Memories from Outback Surf Shop, 2009 – 2017

Photo courtesy of Isaac Brandl

A year ago, on any given spring day, you could walk into the little surf shop at the mouth of Price Center–at the end of Library Walk, right before Geisel, at the top of the stairs that descended into the plaza–and disappear into a slice of UC San Diego largely unknown to the thousands of students who mill past it every day, despite its location in the center of campus.  Glimpses of distant waves and faraway oceans could be seen on a screen that played perennially behind the cash register, and wetsuits hung in a neat array on the back wall. A loving mass of stickers that had accumulated on the shop doors over the course of nearly a decade greeted each person who stepped over the threshold. And most of all, a laid-back, dark-haired man with a permanent bit of scruff and trucker hat–the store’s manager, Isaac Brandl–seemed ever-present.

“This was the first place I came on Triton Day,” recalls Brian DeWaele-Dillon, a second-year student employee at Outback Surf Shop, who began working there during the beginning of his freshman year. At the time of interview, we paced through an Outback that had been rapidly emptied out, a casualty of a trend in poor business that had been going on for over a year. The store announced a final closing sale, and the countdown to its closure at the end of May was marked by the measured disappearances in inventory. An entire storeroom filled with surfing and outdoor paraphernalia at the beginning of the quarter had dwindled down to a small collection of hats, flip flops, and sunglasses laid out on one small center display table towards its end.

On May 31st, 2017, Outback Surf Shop closed for good.

For Brandl, it had been a long, memorable–and often times, wild–labor of love. Brandl, who opened the shop in April of 2009 with administrative blessing, had been present for each chapter in its eight year-long history. He happened upon the public job listing for a managerial position at an as-of-yet-unopened surf shop on UCSD’s campus and had simply charged forward. The year prior, Brandl had been laid off as the general manager of the Sports Chalet on Midway and recounted his firing as one of the worst days of his life. The time and energy he had expended into his work there had been swept away in the economic downturn of 2008.

Brandl’s daughter was young at the time, and he himself was not yet thirty; the normal consistency and routine usually found in career had disappeared, and the period after his layoff was difficult. But finding the Outback listing changed everything; Brandl read the description and everything clicked immediately. “It was like I had written the job description for myself,” he said. “Everyone always tell you don’t trip out because things will get better. But things actually ended up being better.” And in February 2009, Brandl was hired by the university to manage what would become Outback Surf Shop.

Going from one managerial position to another might have seemed like a smooth transition, but the opening of Outback presented a different vision of management entirely. The space that would transform itself into Outback obviously wasn’t a Sports Chalet; it was a relatively small room tucked into the mouth of PC Plaza, a scant sketch as to what it would become when Brandl lent it his vision.

He opened the store on April 24th. “I was basically given the keys to the car,” Brandl said. Everything–from accounts, to hiring, to picking out paints and fixtures–was up to him. “They brought me in to build the store.” And he built it for eight years.

Isaac Brandl is not a SoCal native. He carries himself with an easy-going jaunt and a constant small smile, and for nearly a decade, ran the only surf shop on a San Diego university campus with a lovingness that suggested that he had always been there. But the blue-green gradient of the water and the craggy cliffs that line this beautiful stretch of the Pacific are a sharp departure from where Brandl grew up. Born in Wasilla, a town of 8,000 people on the south-central coast of Alaska most famous for its former mayor, Sarah Palin, and perhaps a few other things Brandl didn’t care to recall, he described his childhood in Alaska as desolate and isolating. Drug use and the cold of an Alaskan winter had worn away at many of his peers.

Brandl remembered Wasilla as a standard small town with a set of issues not uncommon to more parochial cities. Perennial boredom gave way to more disreputable activities; the detached nature of Wasilla provoked downward spirals in people who might have acted differently had they anything else to do. Brandl started working at thirteen and always had some sense that he would leave one day.

“Wasilla has an everything problem,” Brandl said. The gravity of the “everything problem” and its effects on his friends had begun to wear on him too. At twenty, he decided he needed to move, and go as far away from Alaska as he could. “It was time to get the fuck out,” he said.

Brandl dropped out of high school as a senior and spent his late teens working, skateboarding, hanging out–and thinking of a game plan for his inevitable departure. Leaving Alaska at twenty was in some sense a bit overdue.

I asked him how he ended up here.  “San Diego was at the bottom of the map,” he said, and it seemed as far away from Alaska as he could imagine–so it had to be the place to go. Brandl sold everything he had, bought a plane ticket, found a room, and left. With the purchase of a one-way trip to San Diego, Brandl had already decided to construct a new life for himself, somewhere on a golden coast with an endless blue horizon. Small town Wasilla–Brandl’s friends, his family, and the lakes and valleys left behind–were gone in almost the blink of an eye.

Brandl remembers flying over Balboa Park and the skyscrapers of Downtown San Diego as he made his descent to the airport. He was still bundled up from the Alaskan spring, and upon touching down, immediately changed into shorts. He bought his first pair of flip flops at a surf shop on his way to his new room, and bought his first burrito at the Taco Surf in PB. He met his wife within months of arriving; they were married by the time he was 22. And a series of odd jobs led him to a position as a ski tech at Sports Chalet, and eventually to Outback Surf Shop.

In the years between Outback and his arrival in San Diego, Brandl and his wife welcomed a daughter, now fourteen years old. Brandl described fatherhood as one of the best things that had ever happened to him–the other best thing, of course, was the community and home he had cultivated at Outback. His duties at the shop quickly moved from the usual managerial responsibilities to a different sort of fatherhood all together. Brandl would often jokingly describe himself as an uncle-brother-dad figure–a boss and a friend and a confidante all rolled into a fatherly one. A trusted “third party adult,” as he liked to call it. I didn’t meet a single person associated with the shop who didn’t ascribe that to him.

“Isaac is my friend,” DeWaele-Dillon said simply. “I can’t think of anyone more perfect to run this place.”

For almost a decade, Outback has played host to a motley collection of people whose relationships with the shop extend beyond a love of surfing or the outdoors. Passersby on Library Walk might remember it as an almost literal hole in the wall that sold surfing or other sporting goods, but to the family that put down its roots on April 24th, 2009–simultaneously small and lovingly extensive–the definition of Outback as a shop was only secondary to the sense of belonging it offered, on a campus where camaraderie is often, at least initially, hard to find.

“The surf shop is really its own specific entity,” said Jake Wooley, one of the student managers at Outback for the 2016-2017 school year. “It’s hard to characterize it, but everyone here just really loves spending time here with each other.” Wooley, like many of the other shop employees, emphasized Brandl’s role as a friend and mentor in addition to being a boss; he also added that Brandl was the essential centerpiece of the shop and everything that revolved around it. “He brings the best out of everyone.”

A boss that brings out the best in everyone almost necessitates that his employees are a tight knit group. During the first round of hiring in 2009, Brandl said, there were only 20 applicants; now, over five hundred students apply to work at Outback each year. Only a small handful are hired; Wooley puts that number as typically two or three. The few who make it through are accordingly fond of each other.

While Brandl looked for the usual talent and customer service skills, personality and character played a huge role in the selection process as well. Hanah Mirahmadi, the other student manager for the 2016-2017 school year, had applied to work at Outback before she had even transferred to the university the year prior; like Dewaele-Dillon, a chance wandering into the shop on Transfer Triton Day had irrevocably drawn her in. As always, a dark-haired man with a trucker hat had been lounging behind the counter, perpetually ready to engage someone in a quick chat about the store and its history. Dewaele-Dillon and Mirahmadi jived with him. Then they filled out an application to work there.

Employees and friends of the store remember it not simply as a surf shop but as a gathering place for a multifaceted community, a slice of surf culture on campus with rap battles and movie screenings and pub crawls to boot. Brandl, of course, remained an ever-present figure (and as I learned, apparently a pretty good rapper), allowing his little shop to transform into a space to watch movies and buy gear or just shoot the shit, to make friends and grow up and find a little reprieve from the daily grind of campus life. What in 2009 started as a tiny collection of students ready to work in UCSD’s newest retail fixture grew into a lifelong family. The students worked, they made friends, they grew older, and they left. Some even eventually married each other and had children. Brandl–in all his capacity as boss, friend, mentor, and confidante–fondly remembers secret romances, pranks gone awry, interesting characters, and a litany of adventures both remarkable and so hilariously weird I’ve chosen not to write about them here.

“I was kind of thrust into this leadership and mentor role that I never really had before,” Brandl said of his time at Outback. “You watch them grow up, and teach them what you can.” The lessons he taught encompassed everything from the most tender to the most flippant; the stories he accumulated–whether bizarre or random or sweet–occupy a hallowed space in shop lore.

Brandl and I are hanging out at Round Table again when he begins telling me one of these stories. There’s a friend of the shop, an itinerant old surfer who travels up and down the small stretch of coast between La Jolla, Encinitas, and Windansea. He came into the store the first and second day it was open and introduced himself as the Hodad; Brandl eventually figured out that his name was Rich. Rich was a fixture at the shop, coming in every other week or so for nearly a decade; something about the place had presumably struck a chord with him, and he never missed a chance to stop by.

Rich had described himself as houseless, but not homeless. “Outback is one of his homes,” Brandl said.

UCSD is home to an eclectic collection of niche spaces, all of which have metamorphosed with time, or love, or lack of funding. Sometimes change signaled something bigger and better; other times it meant that a space–a piece of some community, no matter how big or small–closed for good, or became something so utterly different it was barely recognizable. The Craft Center shuttered its doors in 2012, and Graffiti Hall was reduced to a collection of billboards in the back of the Old Student Center. For the artists and crafters who had once found joy, silliness, friendship or occupation in those rooms or hallways, the options were to continue surreptitiously–or more likely, they were forced to move on.

To the employees and friends of Outback, its closure signifies something painfully similar, on a campus where the status of community and recreational spaces is in constant flux. ”Obviously for us in the [surfing] community, there’s not really anything that can parallel [Outback],” says DeWaele-Dillon. “The people you work with are your really good friends–I don’t think it’s like that with most places. [Outback is] a pretty unique community. On the greater campus side, I think it really solidifies the presence of surf culture here. We’re the only university that has world class waves out their backdoor. There needs to be some kind of presence on campus that signifies that, otherwise it’s all academics.”

JT West, the surf team photographer, had similar sentiments. “UCSD doesn’t really promote being friends with everyone,” he said. In between the vast lecture halls, discussions, and all the ins and outs of academia, getting to know people was difficult for West.  “Being a freshman, I was pretty lonely. I felt the smallest I’d ever been.  It felt like I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to meet people even though I was surrounded by folks.” The remedy to West’s initial loneliness–and that of so many others–was the family and sense of belonging that Outback provided. “I’m gonna miss that community. Just when you walk into it. It’s kinda like your identity almost. The people who work there also shape the environment.”

“It’s given me a group of friends that I hold pretty close to my heart,” said Owen Cockerill, a sophomore on the surf team. He had worked at a surf shop back home, and a fellow  employee told him something memorable about running a store. “You really have to run the business based on friendliness,” he said. “People can buy the products anywhere. But they come to shops to support you. Isaac was the definition of that [friendliness]. You’d go to [Outback] simply because he worked there.”

“It’s pretty hard to make friends in classes because you can’t really relate to anyone else but when you come into Outback, those are the people you want to be friends with,” said DeWaele-Dillon. For the shop friends and employees, this venue to make friends and cement family was disappearing in almost the blink of an eye, the result of failing business rather than administrative meddling or anything more nefarious. And everything–from the shop closure to the reality that Brandl was no longer going to be their boss–hurt for them.

“What are you going to miss the most?” I asked Mirahmadi.

“Probably Isaac,” she said. Brandl, she explained, was the glue that held everything together, the impetus for everyone to come together no matter how many years removed they were from their UCSD and shop experiences. Brandl and the shop had transformed her college experience; that the shuttering of the shop coincided with the end of her college career had tinged the whole ordeal with a bittersweet sense of closure. At the end of our conversation, though, she was light-hearted. “It’s the end of an era,” Mirahmadi said, “but the end of an awesome era.”

Isaac and the Outback crew and friends. Photo courtesy of Brian DeWaele-Dillon.

Isaac and the Outback crew and friends. Photo courtesy of Brian DeWaele-Dillon.

I’m shooting the shit with Isaac again on a warm afternoon in May. We’re sitting outside on the Round Table patio listening to voices ebbing and flowing in the heat. Students trail into Geisel, or head into PC; we’re drinking beer and eating pizza and the conversation comes back to Alaska, to that little town near mines and oilfields that eventually gave way to lakes and valleys, some distant place perennially eager to resurface. We talk about everything else in between. I bluntly ask him if he’s sad about the shop closing down, and the obvious answer is yes. But as we run through recollections and ruminate on eight years’ worth of time, love, and memories, that small smile returns to his face again.

“It’s the best thing that I ever could have had the chance to do. Which also makes it happy too, right?” he said. “I had my time here. I can’t be that sad about it because it was so fucking sick. It’s like being sad that your vacation’s over.”

But Brandl also expressed sadness for his students; the employees who had their time at the shop cut short, the kids who had made friends through a love of surfing or rap battles or being outdoors, everyone who had ever collected themselves within that space. “It’s their home. We’re pulling the rug out from underneath these kids. The shop is like their social center. It’s all their friends.” Brandl brought up “home” a lot–and community, and family, a place and people to have and do the things you love. So did everyone else.

We’re talking about Dead Kennedys and Talking Heads. We discussed the song “This Must Be the Place” and I warbled out the first few lines. “Home is where I want to be/but I guess I’m already there…”

Brandl talks a bit more about the home he created over almost a decade as he thumbs through his phone and shows me pictures of his sisters and parents, glimpses of another home in a faraway state. “What a great human experience,” he says softly. “To create something from nothing.”

There was a lot of that something that lay just behind those sticker-lined doors at the end of Library Walk, a whole lot of work in every fixture and display. A lot of fun in the shop’s heyday, a lot of sadness in its closure. A lot of love for Brandl and the space he cultivated. Brandl’s been thinking a lot about his time there over the last eight years. It’s only natural; another chapter of his life is ending, and a new one is about to begin. At the beginning of this chapter the shop had no vision; I finally ask Brandl about the vision he gave it.

The vision is just “home.” UCSD is a big campus; life is long and wonderful and sad and weird; home is where we all want to be at some point; home is what he found here. “This can be your home; I can be your parent; this can be your family,” he says of Outback. “We’re gonna live aloha.” He takes another swig, pauses, and smiles.

“If your shop isn’t a family,” he says, “you’re slipping dude. That’s how it has to be, or else, what are you doing?”