Foster Folsom reckons he caught his first wave on Folly Beach, South Carolina, back in 1964. Even on a rural, southern jungle beach outpost like Folly, he and his small crew of local teenaged sand rats and boat buddies had not been immune to influence from the Gidget-fueled, Hollywood explosion of surf culture nor the occasional California or Florida military transplant who had found refuge amidst Folly’s summer-warmed, sand-bottomed waves.
“The first time I saw a surfer was around ’62 or ’63,” the 75-year-old Folsom says in a deep Carolina drawl. “We’d been riding surf mats. And I saw a surfer, a fella named Sarge Bowman. I said, ‘You can’t surf on this coast. We don’t have the waves.’ He goes ‘Yes I can.’ He was using candle wax on his board for traction. I swear it was a Hobie.”
Despite being a mere 20-minute drive from historic downtown Charleston, Folly has always been its own town. The Folsoms lived in a small, remote, densely forested and buggy vacation Shangri-la where chickens were literally raised in the dunes, cars were legally raced on the beach, and everyone knew everyone. During the summer, Folly became a heady party mecca generally avoided by genteel Charlestonians who favored the staid environs of Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms north of Charleston Harbor. Still, both inlanders and locals were lured to a wonderful (but now extinct) amusement park and dance hall at the Folly Pier and a collection of gift shops, restaurants, and establishments along the commercial Center Street. Long before he would become a state marine biologist, Folsom had found work lining up the pins at the Folly Bowling Center. The manager was a cranky, gregarious Navy man, former Golden Gloves boxer and local entrepreneur named Dennis McKevlin.
Dennis had two sons: Ted a couple of years younger than Folsom, and Tim was 11 years younger. The McKevlins lived a few blocks from the Folsom family’s small guest house in a simple beach shack that like most places on Folly, had no central heat and no aiir conditioning. Windows and doors were generally open throughout Folly’s sweltering summers. “One of my fondest memories was being able to hear the bands playing from the old Pier’s dance hall at night,” recalls Tim.
The bowling alley’s business was slowing and it had not escaped Dennis’ attention that the local kids were taking a rabid interest in surfing. Though most of South Carolina gets regular, if not stellar, surf, Folly came to be known for its more consistent and punchy waves. Dennis had never seen anything inspire such devotion. “The story goes that my brother had contracted a real bad case of pneumonia and was confined to bed rest,” recalls Tim. “A pretty good swell showed up and my brother crawled out of our bedroom window to go surfing. (As Folsom recalls, the weather was also quite cold.) My dad caught him, gave him a lashing, then became convinced that this “surfing thing” might have legs.
McKevlin decided to take a dusty 9’x30′ storage room at the back of the bowling alley and, with Ted’s help, The Folly Beach Surf Shop was born. McKevlin didn’t actually stock boards, but you could place a hundred-plus dollar order for a highly-regarded California-shaped Con longboard. Folsom recalls the local kids saving every cent from their summer jobs for McKevlin-supplied surfcraft. The McKevlins also bought blocks of paraffin from the Gulf gas station up the street, cut it into small blocks, and re-sold it. Soon, Dennis signed on to carry California’s respected Hansen surfboards, following them with other marquee shapers like Hobie and Bing. “We called him Mr. Mac and Cadillac Mac,” Folsom chuckles. “He goes, ‘Boys, I don’t sell those off-brand boards from the East Coast. I only sell boards from the West Coast—The Cadillacs.’”
By 1990, the punchy beachbreak at a stretch of Folly called the Washout was becoming recognized as a premier spot on the East Coast. When the town decided to outlaw surfing there, it was Tim’s turn to step up with local attorneys and surfers to overturn another unjust rule.
While Ted ran the shop, Tim grew up in it—and on the beach. “My first surf was probably in 1967 when my brother pushed me into a few waves,” he says. “My buddies and I grew up surfing boards and canvas rafts when we weren’t bumming free rides on the Tilt-a-Whirl or Bumper Cars at the Folly Amusement Park. Dad made cheese sandwiches for the surfers who braved the cold. Since no one had a wetsuit, they would surf as long as they could, come in and warm up next to a trash can fire on the beach, then go back out.”
Tim and Foster recalled surfing’s dizzying growth during the middle to late ’60s and the shop’s expansion into magazines and other gear—“beaver tail” wetsuit jackets from California’s Dive ‘n’ Surf, Canvas by Katin, Jantzen trunks, Pendleton shirts, surf-logo’d tees from every board shaper, and iron cross necklaces. Folsom recalls the thrill among local kids when international surf stars like Fred Hemmings would pop in for a visit.
In 1967, Dennis decided to open a shop across Charleston Harbor on Sullivan’s Island, changing the name of both shops to “McKevlin’s Surf.” That shop was successful, so they uprooted it and relocated to a beachside spot a few miles north at the Isle of Palms. By 1969, Folly was (and some would argue it remains) one of the East Coast’s preeminent bohemian coastal towns. Mr. Mac (as McKelvin was known) would lease the bowling alley to a local family who turned it into what Tim called “a trippy music joint” called Alice’s Underground. Foster would meet his wife Lilla working behind the counter at McKevlin’s Folly Beach. He would also open his own cosmic Folly surf shop, Revolution Number Nine. The shop provoked Mr. Mac’s ire, but that didn’t last long because, after a couple of years, Folsom decided to pursue a career in marine biology. And it didn’t slow down McKevlin’s.
As surfing grew, Mr. Mac began fashioning homemade surfboard leashes from bungee cords and surgical tubing (they would be replaced by urethane and Velcro legropes from companies like Balin). Rust-prone rainbow roof racks and indestructible Rainbow sandals became instant local surfer identifiers. Gas station paraffin was supplanted by soft compounds from Wax Research and Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax, whose t-shirts asserting it to be “The Best for Your Stick,” scandalized Charleston classrooms. Trunks from a company called Birdwell Beach Britches became—and remain—hugely popular.
In the early to mid 1970s, one of Folly’s best surfing sandbars happened to be right in front of the mayor’s house at 12th Street East. Tim and his friends provoked the mayor’s ire by showing up at 6 a.m. to surf. Tim recalls that, to the mayor, the surfers were “dropouts” and “rebels” who were really just “doing drugs.” “Kids having fun and making noise repulsed him, so he sought to stop it,” says Tim. “He had neighbors say that surfers were urinating in their yards, using their showers, endangering the lives of beach goers, and parking illegally. They started creating random beach rules restricting times and locations where surfing was allowed.”
Mr. Mac and Folsom’s father I.L. Folsom attended council meetings and berated the mayor. “Dad yelled his own opinions from the gallery and was constantly shut down,” says Tim. “He spread the word of what the council was doing on our call-in Surf Report, at the shop to kids and their parents, and by contacting the media. It seemed to me that every other day he was either on TV, radio, or in the newspaper.”
Eventually, both Dennis and I.L. won seats on town council. They helped surfers raise funds and hire local lawyer Ben Peeples who represented the surfers in 1976 in Federal Court. Not only did Peeples win, the town agreed to essentially allow surfing everywhere but right alongside the pier. By 1990, the punchy beachbreak at a stretch of Folly called the Washout was becoming recognized as a premier spot on the East Coast. When the town decided to outlaw surfing there, it was Tim’s turn to step up with local attorneys and surfers to overturn another unjust rule. As a bonus, surfing was opened up alongside the pier when the lifeguards weren’t working, and Folly’s pier is now considered one of the state’s pre-eminent longboard waves.
In 1979, Dennis McKevlin took over a long, wooden building at 8 Center Street in the heart of Folly. It had been a raucous nightclub called Morgan’s Red Barn and Tim recalls peering through the timbers at drunken brawls that regularly lit the place up. From what remains the home base today, McKevlin’s continued to evolve. As surfing and skateboarding exploded through the 1980’s, the shop would stock the shelves and hangers with goods from Powell Peralta, Quiksilver, O’Neill, Lightning Bolt, Sundek, Offshore and Body Glove. “Then in the ‘big-hair’, neon 80’s many of these brands got greedy and took their talents to the malls,” says McKevlin. “That’s when we began searching out smaller companies who primarily sold just to surf shops.”
In 1989, Charleston was ravaged by the category four Hurricane Hugo. The Isle of Palms shop was destroyed. The Folly store’s roof was peeled back like a sardine can. The merchandise that wasn’t destroyed was moved to Tim’s tiny, undamaged shop in the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant. “We kept almost all our crew working,” he says. “There was never any consideration to give up.”
By the early 1990s, mall shoppers soured on surfing and the the surf/skate world—and McKevlin’s sales—contracted dramatically. McKevlin’s survived by continuing to focus on its longtime clientele — actual surfers, core brands and surfboards. “For us the absolute main product priority is, and has always been, surfboards,” Tim says. “To us the surfboard is a sacred piece of art. And, there is no absolute, one right way to surf. Surfers develop a style; they repeat what feels good; they practice and work at what challenges them. They deserve a surfboard made for them. And, they shouldn’t have to compromise. (Brand-wise), our philosophy was to at least try to carry only brands that didn’t try to sell out to everyone and everywhere. I think that helped us survive into the early 2000’s when surfing became super accessible and popular.” Between the movie Blue Crush tempting more females into surfing and surfboard brands creating more friendly shapes for non-competitive (read most) surfers, surfing became something a bit more mainstream.
Among the women drawn to the sport was Perng Hutson. In 2005, the stylish longboarder was a recent graduate from Florida’s Rollins College. Seeing a “help wanted” sign on McKevlins front window, she walked in. Today, as the shop’s assistant manager, she’s one of Tim’s several long-haul employees.
“When I first started, I’d say it was like 25% women working females working at the shop,” she says. “I think for a long time in a surf shop, maybe there weren’t a lot of women who wanted to work at a surf shop because it was more male driven. Now it’s definitely 50/50. We’re just evolving as society evolves too. To Tim, it doesn’t matter if you have a male or female so long as that person wants to work and is willing to learn.”
And as surfing has evolved, Hutson and Folsom say, so has Tim’s management style. Early on, Tim made most of the shop’s purchasing and management decisions. “Then somewhere along the way, I came to the realization that it’s smarter to combine many brains than just settle on one,” he says.
Today, the shop is run more like a cooperative between Tim, Hutson, and longtime employee/collaborators Brian Eichelman, Chris Newman, Heather Wall, Chris Kemp, and even Folsom, who has been repairing damaged surfboards brought into McKevlins for decades. “We encourage employees to find their place here that feels best for them,” Tim says. “If someone likes to tinker online, we offer them a webmaster position. If they like to doodle, we encourage them to create designs for t-shirts and hats. If they have a collection or a particular interest in watches, we offer them a position as a watch buyer. We ask them to bring whatever skills or interests they have outside to work. That probably has a lot to do with why we’re able to keep people here for so long.”
For Eichelman, that has meant finances and marketing. For Kemp, artwork. For Hutson, social media and McKevlin’s wildly successful Gromfest kid’s summer surf contest (this year’s July event lured over 200 competitors.) “Then Heather gets her own area to be responsible for,” adds Folsom. “Tim doesn’t say what to order, but if it doesn’t sell, it’s her her butt on the line. They’re allowed a lot of latitude and they have their own little fiefdoms. I think it’s great.”
Like so many retail businesses, the shop was put to the test during the pandemic. In March 2020, not only did McKevlin’s shut down, but Folly Island was closed off to non-residents for a couple of months. The situation looked bleak. Eventually, Hutson says, the longtime employees handled orders by phone or online, leaving orders outside the shop for customers to pick up. The shop re-opened after Memorial Day with strict customer number and shop protocols in place. “People would wait 30-45 minutes to come in,” says Hutson. “We never got sick. And it was because we kept people wearing masks. If I had somebody yell at me, ‘Why are you guys so strict’? I’d say ‘There’s something called a pandemic. We don’t want to get sick and we don’t want you to get sick.’”
Customer enforcement, Hutson says, was challenging for the shop’s high-school age employees, but McKevlin encouraged his managers to have their backs, no matter what. “They would get backlash all the time,” says Hutson. “But Tim supports us so much. He gave us energy for like, ‘Hey, stand up for yourself. Stand up for what you believe in. As long as we’re, you know, obviously nice to the customers.’”
Besides strict COVID-19 policies, there are a couple of product segments where McKevlin has also refused to compromise, he stills sells surf wax for a dollar per bar (making basically zero money on this staple) and he refuses to carry mass-produced surfboards. On this front, he arguably helped spark a whole movement—and alienated some of the brands he once carried. Back in the 1990s, brands like Surftech revolutionized the surfboard industry with tough, computer shaped, Asia-built surfboards with epoxy exteriors and Styrofoam cores like those found in grocery store coolers. They were then followed by all manner of soft decked surfboards that now include Surftech’s “Soft Tops,” Costco Wavestorms, and Liquid Shredder. These “pop out” boards sold—and continue to sell—heavily, but they’ve also led to hard times for craftspeople who shape boards by hand—passing along a little of their own soul into every board. McKevlin produced an innocuous round white sticker that was little more than the term “Pop-Outs” with a red circle slash across it. The stickers didn’t even identify McKevlin’s shop. But they began to “pop up” everywhere. Today, it’s not uncommon to see them adorning street signs or restaurant walls from San Clemente to Haleiwa.
“You see that everywhere in the world,” says Lilla Folsom. “I don’t care where you surf, you see that sticker.”
“I went into Surfy Surfy in California with 100 of those stickers,” says Foster. “I walked out with 50. The guys at Icons of Surf in San Clemente, they go, ‘Oh yeah, we know about McKevlins.’ I gave them a big handful of stickers too.”
“The sign on our shop says “No Pop-Outs” because we don’t sell, service, or trade them,” says Tim. “We’re not telling other people what to do. We’re letting them know that inside this shop, they won’t find any of those for sale here. If everyone happily plops their money down for a mass-produced surfboard made in an auto parts factory and created by people who have never surfed before, that will become the new norm, because it’s cheaper and faster. We’d rather sell surfboards to people who want what they want and won’t settle. Our cut-off point is: Can a board be customized (bought hand shaped from the manufacturer)? If a brand tells us no, then we don’t buy from them. Unfortunately, one day that very well may be laughable, and the idea of getting a custom surfboard and drooling over a surfboard shape will sound old-fashioned.”
Still, McKevlin admits, with even marquee shapers like Mayhem and Channel Islands relying on CNC machines to duplicate their most successful hand shapes, the line becomes blurry. “These days, if there weren’t shaping machines, the only BIG surfboard brands probably would only be pop-out brands.” Tim says. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. With no machine they wouldn’t be able to maintain their big brand status and create the volume of sales they do, but this means they are creating hundreds of nearly identical boards. The existence of a big brand brings with it a steady, reliable company that can get you what you want in a reasonable time and at a reasonable price (usually). The smaller brand can give you a more personal, personalized piece of equipment, and they might even remember your name. For us, still, if the big brand won’t let us alter or customize the shape in any way for the customer, then we don’t carry their boards.”
McKevlin also accepts the fact that soft boards are pretty much ubiquitous. But he simply doesn’t want to sell them. “They’re also excellent for kids to get their first push into surfing because they’re durable and probably won’t crack their head open,” he says. “We share info to people every day about where to buy them, but we don’t want to sell them. If I had a golf shop, I wouldn’t sell Nerf Golf sets.”
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