Joe Green, owner of Surf N Sea in Haleiwa, has fought back against storms, termite damage and now a pandemic

·6 min read

Oct. 10—Owner Joe Green has replaced almost every stick in the landmark Surf N Sea building in Haleiwa, or you could say, board by board.

The shop has been selling surfboards and all the accessories since 1965 in the 100-year-old building, and has survived everything from termites, hurricanes, tsunamis and even COVID-19, Green said. He came on board as a partner in 1983 and eventually became the sole owner some 35 years ago.

Built in 1921, the yellow-and-brown building is an integral part of Haleiwa's charm from the olden days, with its covered wooden walkway and a square-front second story dotted by quaint windows and awning, he said. Sitting next to Anahulu Bridge on Maeaea Beach, the building is being nominated for the Hawaii Register of Historic Places in November.

Green said the building was a grocery and general store before it became Surf N Sea in the'60s. When he started there in 1982, it still carried hardware, guns and ammunition, in addition to stocking a dozen surfboards and renting scuba diving gear. He had his own ­section in a back room, refurbishing and selling boards, and also gave surfing lessons.

Though a carpenter by trade, originally from Florida, he was a surfer at heart and moved to Hawaii in 1977 to ride the waves. He got a job remodeling a house, but to earn extra money, Green was soon selling repaired surfboards at swap meets three times a week, packing them inside and on the roof of the old Volvo he shipped from home.

Back then, Haleiwa was still a sleepy country town, right before the big-name contests such as the Triple Crown of Surfing began drawing surfing aficionados and tourists from all over the world, he said.

"The termites were holding hands when I got here, " he said, referring to the state of the historic building. The floor had dropped down 10 inches from the entrance, and rose in a few other places ; in some spots, "the floor was like a little trampoline, and stuff would drop down from the shelves, " he said. Then Hurricane Iwa ripped the whole roof off late in 1982, and he scrambled around scavenging wood from old buildings in Haleiwa to ­replace it.

His biggest challenge over the years has been maintaining the rustic building. He has invested close to $1 million in renovations.

"It has always been a joy to me, it really has, " he said. "I've replaced almost every stick of that building, re-roofed three or four times maybe, and re-done the floor ; it goes on and on."

He became one of three partners in 1983, and when two of them left, he took over after he married his girlfriend, Naoko, in 1986.

Naoko Green said she had come to Hawaii on vacation to visit a girlfriend—long before Japanese tourists discovered it en masse. Her friend was into windsurfing and introduced her to Green, who gave her windsurfing lessons.

Naoko Green still does the books and marketing, and serves customers from Japan who don't speak English.

"My wife is a very smart girl, she made lots of friends and (return ) customers, " he said. "I don't know how I would have done it without her ; she is such a hard worker."

The operation has become a family affair : Their daughter Mari Clemente now manages the operation, with son, Joey Green, assisting, and daughter Momi Green is in charge of social media.

A piece of Haleiwa Adding to the historic charm of the building is Joe Green's collection of over 150 vintage surfboards owned by the sport's all-time champions, including the legendary Duke Kahana ­moku. His 13-foot board hangs from the ceiling among the others—Green bought it at an auction and tried it on the water a few times—"It rides like a Cadillac !" he said.

Other boards are linked with superstar names that roll off his tongue, including one that belonged to big-wave surfing pioneer and close friend Greg Noll, who died in June.

Surf N Sea is crammed with the latest boards, beachwear, rental equipment and a vast assortment of T-shirts and other paraphernalia that tourists can pick up for souvenirs. A lot of items are tagged with the store's logo.

"Our Surfer Crossing logo is huge, " he said, garnering fans in Japan and Europe. Green designed it himself in 1996, hiring an artist to draw a silhouette of a surfer, swinging an ukulele in one hand and a board under his arm, in mid-stride, with the words "Surfer X-ing " against a backdrop of bright yellow.

"People want to look like a surfer, wear their stuff, " he said. "The T-shirts are huge ; they're our biggest moneymaker, as well as the trunks. Kids want to be stylish."

Hanging on the wall next to the T-shirts is a row of artisanal ukulele that Green made himself after learning how to carve them 15 years ago. He has his own website to advertise his line, Haleiwa Ukuleles, made from recycled wood, including some of the salvaged floorboards used in Surf N Sea.

"This means that when you purchase a Haleiwa Ukulele, you are literally owning a piece of Surf n Sea & Haleiwa !!" says the plug on.

It's clear Green is a jack-of-all-trades. "I love making stuff with wood, " he said. His woodwork includes the bookmarks and ornamental hair sticks for sale at the store.

While talking about his ­career and the store's history, Green took one of the ukes off the wall and began to strum. He sang "The Music in Me, " the title song of one of his own recordings. (He has his own rock group, Joe Green and the North Shore Band.)

Looking ahead Business was "rockin'" ­before the COVID-19 shutdown, and the store struggled like the rest of Haleiwa's tourist-dependent retailers in spring 2020 for months, Green said. But since reopening, the store has had its best three months this past summer. He had a staff of 40 before the shutdown, but it now numbers 30, and he's trying to hire more.

Green attributes the store's popularity to his staff and the way they've been trained in customer service, based on methods taught by author Ron Martin in the 1996 book "Retail Selling Made Easy."

"My employees are proactive, but they try not to be too pushy, " he said. He offers his staff monthly goals to reach, and then divides the profits that are made beyond the goal as an incentive for them to give good service.

Although Surf N Sea ­survived storms and termites, Green wonders if the store can stand up to climate change. He worries it could be sucked away along with the rest of the beach that has been steadily eroding behind the building. "It's been jaw-dropping, " he said, how much the sand has shifted over the decades, pinpointing the years in which the ocean's swells and eddies have altered the coastline drastically.

In 1969, one of the building's former owners built a breakwall of derelict cars to protect the structure, bulldozing cars flat and covering them with sand and rock. It held together all these years, but last year, after a flood eroded some of the shoreline, Green could see parts of a Volkswagen and a Chevrolet Impala.

"That's what scares me, the future of Surf N Sea. It's a strong building ; it will hold up to a lot. But a tsunami ?" he said, letting out a big sigh. "I'm not sure how it's going to fare."