Garden City Beach’s Kelly Richards is a surfer. By definition, that would mean a person who rides waves. Old timers would tell you that being a surfer is something different. You either are, or you aren’t. There are those who ride waves, and they are surfers by definition. And then there are those who have it in their very being, it’s just who they are, and everything else revolves around that. Kelly Richards is that kind of surfer. Let’s check the resume.
His surf shop is legendary. His surfboards are known around the world. His two surfing sons would make anyone proud. And, his impact on this region has been enormous. Nearly every local surfer has been affected by the catalyst that is, Kelly Richards; owner of Village Surf Shoppe, shaper of Perfection Surfboards, and father to Cole and Cam Richards.
Richards was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1961. Then, when his mom remarried in 1974, they moved to Garden City Beach, SC. Richards was 12 years old. “I didn’t want to move here because I used to bowl, and hunt there, and I fought it,” Richards said while leaning back in his well-worn office chair inside Village Surf Shoppe. “But, I was here for about two weeks and thought, well, I’ve found home now. “
Richards lived three blocks from the beach. “We moved here in the summer. And my sister was dating a lifeguard. So, the first waves I rode were on those rafts that they used to rent. Well, they were rough. They’d just rub your tits off. But they were pretty firm and had grooves in them and you could go down the wall,” said Richards
“I bought my first surfboard here, from Eric (the original owner of Village Surf Shoppe). I tried surfing, and I couldn’t do it. The board was too short, so it made the learning curve very tough. I tried and I tried, and I bought the wetsuit and the boots, and I remember my grandmother was here and she said, “Why don’t you just quit.” And I said, “I can’t quit. I bought the wetsuit, and the boots, and the board, and everything. So, I traded that board in and I got a 6’4 Bing, and I learned how to surf in a week. Because I got on a board that could catch waves and my learning curve was easier. That’s always hung in my mind. And we make sure that the first board a kid buys, we go out of our way to make sure that it’s going to be an easy board to learn on, because I almost quit surfing because of that,” said Richards.
Richards became a pretty good surfer, competing locally and regionally as part of the Village Surf Shoppe team.
When he was in 10th grade, his mother moved back to Arkansas. Given the option to stay in Garden City Beach, Richards worked, and surfed his way through high school. “Back in those days, if you worked at a restaurant in Murrells Inlet, you were like their family,” said Richards. “So, I worked at the Galley Restaurant. Wayne and Tommy Chandler owned it, and they helped me out.
“Surfing helped me a lot with my confidence, because it made me somebody. The kid that doesn’t have something that he loves, or sets goals for himself, those are the kids that go south and end up getting in trouble. I had more than enough opportunities to be a bad kid, but I didn’t. And, I give surfing a lot of credit for that, because it kept me focused.”
Confidence was something that Kelly Richards needed, desperately. Richards has had a speech impediment his whole life. He stutters, and it’s obvious to everyone who speaks with him. “I had a dad that stuttered some when he was young, and I had an uncle that did as well.
“It doesn’t bother me now. The worst thing about it is….This is a funny tale, me laughing at myself.
“As a kid, we always surfed all day, and when I say we surfed all day, I felt like, if I went home to eat a bowl of cereal, I thought I would miss out. I knew a wave came in that I didn’t catch. And then we always hung out at the pier, or arcade at night, picking up chicks.
“But, there is an ice cream shop down there, and I’d surf all day, and then go out and hang out. The worst thing, when you have a speech impediment is when they put you in a line. A line, like at the ice cream shop. So, I’m the 5th person in line, let’s say, ‘I, I, I want a vanilla ice cream. I want a vanilla ice cream.’ Ok. I’m the fourth person in line now. ‘Kelly, you’re going to have to say vanilla, and you’re not good with V words.’ Now, I’m the third person in line, second, and then, poof, there you are. And the guy serving the ice cream says, ‘Yes, what do you want?’
‘I want a va, va, va, va, va, va, va…..CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM!’ And, I take the damn chocolate and walk away, ‘Dammit, I have to eat chocolate ice cream again!’ But, that’s your worst case scenario, when there is a countdown.”
There’s one thing that does still bother him, “A lot people will try to finish for you, and they are just trying to be nice, but that gets kinda like, mmmm. To put it in a nutshell, anyone trying to make themselves more self confident, surfing is the best drug for it. If you believe in yourself, you’re fine.”
Richards purchased Village Surf Shoppe in 1988, and married Toni Jay, from Columbia, that same year. Two years later, his first son, Cole was born. Four years later, son Cameron came along.
He was shaping surfboards under the brand name, “Perfection Surfboards,” and selling them out of his shop, and up and down the East Coast. “At one time, we were the third largest surfboard producer on the East Coast. Those were the heydays of ’89, ’90, & ’91. But that was before the import boards came in, and before the West Coast boards came in.” Richards estimates that he’s personally shaped over 15,000 surfboards by hand. But, those import boards have begun to take their toll on local shapers and the community that they support. “This is what I hate about the import boards. I send them $100,000, and that money is out of our rotation of money. It used to be that every surfboard that was made; the airbrush guy made $25 on it, the glasser made $25, the sander made $25. The only thing that I will say, and I hate it, but it’s the truth, it’s a train, and if you don’t jump on, it runs you over. You have to compete with other people that are doing that. The only ones that we import are the epoxys, the Surftechs. It’s a technology that I can’t even do here. “
Combining the surfboard shaping business with retail has allowed Richards to live a little better lifestyle, “You can make a living building surfboards; you can make money in retail. I’m not rich, but I’m fortunate to have made a living out of something that I love.”
That income and those connections allowed Richards to travel, and surf, with his two sons. “I got Cole surfing young. He was one of the best surfers on the East Coast. He won the NSSA Easterns, Men’s Open, putting out Evan Geiselman in the last 8 seconds and won the event. Cole was a good surfer and a great competitor. He was a better competitor than he was a surfer,” said Richards. Cole now works for Oakley as a field marketing rep. He travels up and down the East Coast, and recently returned from working the Olympics.
“I’ve always told Cole and Cameron, there’s going to be heats in surfing that you should have lost, that you’ll win. And there’s going to be heats that you should have won and you’ll lose. Let’s hope it weighs out,” Richards noted.
While son Cole decided that he also liked other sports, and wouldn’t pursue a professional surfing career, younger brother Cameron (Cam) has seen his star continue to climb in the surfing world. After winning contests up and down the East Coast, Cam began competing nationally and internationally. One of his biggest wins was the 2011 NSSA Open Men’s National Championship. He also received notoriety for an online voting contest that brought national attention to the name Cam Richards, because he was in a head-to-head voting battle with the number one free-surfer in the world. After aging out of junior tour competitions, the now 21 year old has taken the nontraditional path of creating exposure though film and video appearances. His latest film, Pardon Me, received rave reviews, and his performance in the film has him sitting as a Top 5 nominee for Best Performance in Video in the 2016 Surfer Poll Awards. Cam’s first film, the 2015, Hawaiian shot, Palmera Express, drew hundreds to the two-showing, packed house theater at Inlet Square Mall. “There is no higher high than seeing your kids happy,” said Kelly Richards. “Watching Cam in that movie was a big high, but more than that was seeing all the people there. They were there to support him. Of course, the free pizza and bowling helped.”
Community has always been important to Kelly Richards. His shop donates a considerable amount of goods and time each year to local surfers, camps, organizations, and projects. Additionally, for many years, Richards has partnered with another local surf legend, David Nuckles, to take groups of kids surfing in tropical locations. “One of my greatest joys in life is taking groups of kids traveling. We used to take groups of kids to Costa Rica. And now, we’re taking their kids to Puerto Rico. I get a lot of joy out of seeing a kid see his first reef break, or seeing a kid check his first passport, or see his first monkey. When we do these trips to Puerto Rico, there’s never drama, and it’s always great. That’s brought a lot of joy to my life.”
Richards has always provided that community catalyst, “Our house was the place other kids came over to. We had a bread truck where we had 4 dirt bikes in the back, and we traveled and we’d take other kids with us. We’d go camping and ride dirt bikes, or go fishing. When we’d go to surfing events, it would always be a big group of boys. I would let boys be boys.
“There’s nothing that will make you feel like a grom more than going surfing with kids. A lot of the times, I act like a kid. I like to do the things that kids like to do. I like to laugh and I like to be around kids when they’re doing new things. If I take a kid fishing, I want to see that kid catch a fish. I don’t want to catch the fish; I want to see him catch it.”
Keeping those kids active, and keeping those kids off drugs, is something that Richards is passionate about. “I never was into drugs, it was always around me. But, it wasn’t my thing. As long as I’ve dealt with kids in the surf shop, I’ve seen so many kids come in here when they were 13 or 14 years old and they’re on the baseball team, or surfing, and they’re doing great. And then within 6 months, they begin to burn weed, and you begin to see them lose interest in everything. I’ve seen pot take so much motivation out of some great kids,” Richards says, clearly moved emotionally as he thinks about some of those kids.
Although Richards likes to have fun, and likes to laugh (a lot), he is also a hard working businessman. Richards shapes surfboards every single day in his shop. “I definitely see myself shaping for at least the next ten years. It would be a hard thing to argue that Perfection Surfboards has not won more East Coast titles than any other surfboard brand. I’ve been fortunate enough to shape for a bunch of great young surfers, and being a surfer, I know what makes them work. People are moving back toward the hand shaped surfboard. They want to talk to the shaper, and know that their shaper surfs.”
Richards arrived in a small beach town decades ago. His work ethic, passion for others, and community involvement have given him a lot to be proud of, and an impressive resume.
“Things are not always perfect, but I’ve had a pretty good life, and it’s because of surfing. Surfing helped me with the speech impediment,” says Richards.
“I’ve always believed in myself. But I’ve never had a net there for me. If I didn’t have money to eat, it meant that I had to go hungry. I’ve always had to believe in me. Having something you love and being involved with, and seeing kids do things for the first time is fantastic. And, plus, I used to be drop dead gorgeous.”
Kelly Richards: father, surfer, shaper, shop owner …..Legend.
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