Author: Christina De Rockere
November, 2015 Issue
Proof Lab at Tam Junction is a thriving retail community that embraces education, outdoor living, sustainability and community.
Picture Tam Junction about 18 years ago (1997): There’s a Pet Pro and Marin Surf Sports at the junction where Highway 1 makes a left turn on the way to Muir Woods and Stinson Beach. Leading up to the junction, you’ve already passed Dan’s Liquors, Marin Auto Science (car repair), Martin’s Feed Store and a psychic reader. This is the intersection where you can rent a moving van from Tam Rentals or visit the collectible coin store—if you can ever find it open. It’s the epitome of funky Marin retail and funky service space.
Fast forward to today, and the area is still funky, but now there’s a lively consortium of new, creative businesses that populate and energize this frontage property. Now, Proof Lab skate park occupies the rear part of a former warehouse. Proof Lab Surf & Skate Shop is at the front, with Alexi Glickman’s Music School nestled in there, too. Equator Coffee occupies the shed in the front parking lot (which formerly housed used surfboards for sale). Surfing and skateboarding lessons are taught by a world class competitor. The original Proof Lab Station, which shares walls with Alpha Dog (a dog daycare and boarding facility), now holds inventory for clothing, accessories and a relatively new camping annex.
Around the corner is CNL, California Native Plant Nursery, which is home to rare native plants that are artfully monitored by owner Dan Dufficy. Inside the nursery is the Mill Valley Pottery Studio, owned by Jennie Dito, where students of all ages come to get instructions and do pottery work. Also sharing the space is Studio 4 Art, a hands-on art studio for children run by founder Kebby McInroy, who also has an art school in Novato.
Just how did all of this come together? Meet Nate McCarthy and Will Hutchinson, founders of Proof Lab, its environs and its collection of subtenants and neighbors.
I'll begin with a personal vignette: In 2004, I was driving up Shoreline (Highway 1). My eye caught something going on at a little nondescript commercial location called Poplar Square—about a block from the 7-11 hidden in a sea of residential houses as the road heads west. I stopped to investigate. A few young men were skateboarding in the small parking lot outside what was their first retail location. Two of the young men were McCarthy and Hutchinson. Even back then, there was something special in their enthusiasm, demeanor and quiet confidence.
In a recent interview, Hutchinson says, “We opened this first little retail outlet to highlight our interests in life—surfing and skateboarding. When it started out in our 600-square-foot space on Poplar, we had no employees. Nate and I still worked other jobs. He’d work there three or four days per week, and I’d work the rest.” Now, 11 years later, Proof Lab and its mini-empire employs more than 60 people.
McCarthy and Hutchinson were at Poplar for about a year before they had the opportunity to take over Marin Surf Sports from BASD, Inc., successor to original owner, Kevin Campion, who started the niche business in Mill Valley in the 1980s. They started hitting their stride in the new location and changed the name to Proof Lab. (The name stems from a local surf company called “Proof” that Nate started years before.)
In 2011, Proof Lab made a big leap: The landlord offered the partners a very large warehouse-type space that had been a machine shop called Webster’s Gears. It had sat empty for a year or two. “Our landlord kept encouraging us to take on the idea of expanding, but it was still recession times, but it just seemed like way too big of an expansion at first, so it took a little while for us to wrap our heads around it,” says Hutchinson.
The two young men decided to go with it. “Part of it was reactionary,” says Hutchinson. “Having all that space to fill, so we decided to fill it with cool stuff. It coincided with our evolving priorities in life. The skate park came out of our wanting to make retail experiential and interactive—not a traditional mall type of experience, where you can’t do anything, learn anything, try anything. We wanted to make a place where a kid can actually go and do stuff.” They built the park in the 10,000-square-foot, warehouse-like building.
Eric Kirkwood is one of a handful of skateboarding instructors who offer lessons through Proof Lab and a world-class competitor in his own right. On a recent Saturday morning, while I watched him working with the kids, I was impressed by how they were learning from him. I hear 7-year-old Alden and 9-year-old Jonah being coached, “You’re landing and you’re powerful. Your front shoulder is telling your body where to go. Trust yourself. Get some body language.”
The kids are learning about the body-mind connection and how and where to push the limits. Coach Kirkwood, who competed in the international arena guiding the Thailand National Team in both 2007 and 2014, talks about skateboarding in a voice that many of us have never heard. “Skateboarding demands that you be weirdly in the moment—weirdly dialed in,” says Kirkwood. “Junior year of high school in the summertime in Detroit was when I got into it. Because it’s so hard and you have to be so focused, it’s euphoric and you don’t need the other highs. It changed my whole life.” Now 45 and the father of a 5-year-old daughter, it’s easy to see how good he is at working with kids.
Class is over, but activity is not. I see a mom playing on the skate ramp with her children (2-, 4- and 10-year-olds, respectively). Everyone seems very happy and absorbed in what’s going on. I hear the echo of Kirkwood’s words, “weirdly in the moment.”
On most Friday nights, the skate park hosts girls/ladies’ skate night. On this particular Friday night, the gathered crowd has just been treated to a surfing movie called “Mute.” The park has been transformed into a movie theater with kids scattered around on those challenging curves of the ramp—raptly watching the movie unfold on the screen suspended above. There’s been a movie, a raffle and a hot dog party. Community is happening. "Community"—a word I’ve been hearing more and more as I’ve explored this unique collection of businesses. Proof positive: Proof Lab launched a kickstarter campaign in 2014 to build a skate park in nearby Marin City.
In late August 2015, Proof Lab held the grand opening of its first retail shop outside of Tam Junction, in San Rafael on Fourth Street, with a great deal of fanfare. As well as being good storytellers about their product lines in partnership with their vendors, McCarthy and Hutchinson have a great instinct about branding and connecting. For the opening not only did they pull out all the stops to have the farmers market extend down an extra block or two, they set up a “beater car,” which became hurdle/target for the crazy avid skateboarders to jump. Boys of all ages cued up to clear the “beater” and a crowd formed. The excitement and energy was palpable. People were curious and stopping to watch. Music was blasting from the intersection where a DJ was spinning LPs, and kids and adults were taking advantage of free sculpture haircuts.
Surfing lessons include Big Dog Surf Camp, overseen by “Big Dog” Ian Glover, which holds lessons throughout the summer for those ages five and up. The qualifications? Students must know how to swim and be ready to have a good time. Glover is described as a compassionate and patient teacher attuned to learners’ ability, needs, fears and potential. He says, “All you have to do is want it, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Testimonials and Yelp reviews underscore the popularity of this activity and how it enhances the lives of the young participants. One August morning, I witnessed the surfing crew getting their gear ready to climb into the van bound for Stinson Beach. Ahead was a full day of sand, sun, waves and boards and the interaction of all to make very wide-eyed, tired children for the 4 p.m. shuttle return back. Instructor Lily, a regular within the Proof Lab community, attests to what a full, tiring and wonderful day it is at Surf Camp.
Had there been a plan in place for Proof Lab to grow and expand? Hutchinson shares that he has an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco in 2011. His thesis informed Proof Lab’s business plan, though he’s quick to point out that he and McCarthy’s ideas would have evolved even without grad school.The mission statement is “Develop a more sustainable retail model focused on community building and connecting people with the outdoors.”
McCarthy personifies “understatement” with his casual attire and easygoing happy-go-lucky attitude. Shortly after I meet the strong, wiry young man, he comes out from behind the cash register, drops to the ground and does 10 push-ups. I’m talking to the surf guru, who still manages to surf every day, besides running this business. He tells me, “It’s how we do our buying and our intentions of sustainability that differentiates us from other companies. Also, how we train our employees. We do it a little differently. We let them find their own rhythm—their own groove. Together we can get it done. This is a big retail zone. We treat it like a ship with a lot of orchestration.”
In speaking with Helen Russell, who along with her partner, Brooke McDonnell, founded Equator Coffee some 20 yrs. ago, Helen tells how she came to collaborate with Hutchinson and McCarthy for Equator’s first retail location. “I went down to meet with Will because one of my salespeople said the owners wanted to put in an airpot brewer. There was something magical about the place. At that first meeting, Will said, ‘I don’t know anything about coffee.’” I replied, ‘I don’t know anything about surfing.’” Out of that exchange and the need for one another, a new partnership was born.
Russell says of the location, “It’s a total home run. Will and Nate have done an amazing job of building community. The synergy of what we’re doing and what they’re doing totally connects.” Equator Coffee has been specializing in the wholesale, organic and sustainable coffee market since 1995. Clients included Thomas Keller, Tyler Florence and Williams-Sonoma. But at the new location, they were delivering coffee right to the customer.
Pleased to have a space where people ages 3 to 83 feel comfortable coming, Equator shares the coffee shop with Proof Lab in hosting many events. There are cycling groups, motorcycle groups, poetry readings, wine tastings, school events and, most recently, sponsoring the Mill Valley Film Festival. Russell considers each of her two Mill Valley locations as ground zero for their respective populations: downtown on a prime corner for local Mill Valley residents to meet and greet or “the junction” for all the beach goers, surfers, skaters, international travelers and Tam Valley residents.
Partnering to transform
Martha Pearl, owner of Alpha Dog and a neighbor of Proof Lab, says, “Our relationship is kind of like a team. When I opened in 2008, Proof Lab didn’t exist. Then Will and Nate took over and created the most amazing thing. They’re just unbelievable people, the nicest guys. Nate works so hard—he’s always in the store. He loves it. Will is so good with his hands. He does most all of the work they do on the place himself,” she says.
Pearl, who employs 15 people at Alpha Dog, gives a shout out for her small business and others. “Though this is the hardest business I’ve ever run, my team is unbelievable. They’re amazing. They care so much about the dogs. I’m so lucky.”
She continues, “Small business is the backbone of our society. You get back what you put in.” She cites the benefits she gives like 100 percent health insurance and vacations. It was with Pearl’s help partnering with Proof Lab that the messy corner adjacent to this former gas station got transformed into a space where people could come and make a cool garden. They all invested a lot of money and sweat equity to clean up what was once storage space for an old Winnebago. The corner went through various stages in becoming what it is today.
The Mill Valley Pottery Studio, owned by Jennie Dito, has its own retail area as well as studio space inside the nursery. Nadia Tarzi-Saccardi, programs manager and instructor, is also an acclaimed artist who shows her work throughout the Bay Area. Robert Abrams, her colleague at MVPS, exhibits his steel sculptures at Room Gallery in Mill Valley and his ceramic sculptures at The Potter’s Studio in Berkeley. From hand building to throwing clay pots on the wheel, MVPS can not only teach the language of clay, but also hosts private parties and team-building events.
Dufficy of CNL is an old surfing buddy of Will and Nate’s. A landscape contractor, he was under the tutelage of Paul O’Donnell, owner of O’Donnell’s Native Plant Nursery in Fairfax, for 12 years. He says, “I trained and trained and trained.” Now a landscape contractor in his own right, Dufficy adds, “I can do anything on the exterior—hardscapes, habitat restoration, irrigation installation and design, rock walls, and patios.” Obviously happy as he oversees the inventory and design of this most unconventional place, Dufficy admits a large part of his mission is to educate—from knowledge of deer-resistant native plants and medicinal plants to organic solutions for fertilizer.
He tells me how CNL helps people design backyard structures, like his recycled green house with “100-year-old wavy glass” and recycled windows. Dufficy proudly shows me his tool shed with the living roof. Water from the roof is captured in two huge rain barrels. He calls it “an eco-friendly opportunity to harvest earth juice.” Interspersed with his honeysuckle, elderberry and other indigenous native plants is rare, antique Guatemalan and Tunisian pottery. Dufficy says of them, “I like rare things.” Rare also are his creations at the junction, where he’s made a living wall of green plants outside the Proof Lab Surf & Skate Shop, a dramatic table of living plants and exotic wood in front of Equator Coffee and various pots containing rare California native flora scattered around the property.
If you think this is a “feel good” article, it is. It genuinely is. I can’t recall a time when I talked to so many people and the same words would crop up time and time again: community, amazing, magical, sustainable. Obviously, Proof Lab is living up to its mission statement and purpose. In a world so jaded by the artificial, contrived and unauthentic, seeing the appetite for “the real deal” is like a tonic for good health. In this case, it’s good business, too.
Though the partners admit they’re small fish in the big sea (close to $6.5 billion in revenue was reported for the surf and skateboarding industry by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association in 2014), Proof Lab and its band of businesses have a clear vision of how to proceed in life. To quote Hutchinson, “Building community is really what our expertise is in. That’s how we stay excited about what we’re doing on a daily basis. The big companies we partner with do billions in revenue, but they’re mostly working in offices. Here we are. We’re that link—that final leg of delivering the service and the product. We make sure it’s working right. We get it right to the customer.”
Not only do they get it right to the customer, but they provide that vital link of education and of creating community that will keep people coming back again and again—lifelong. Did I tell you that they also have a biodiesel fueling station (with fuel made from locally recycled vegetable oil) and on Thursdays they serve as a distribution outlet for local fishermen to sell their freshly caught fish? All told, they could add "educate" to their mission statement, for, in fact, they're doing just that as they connect people to the outdoors at this unique hub of indoor/outdoor athletics and awareness that's Proof Lab at Tam Junction.