Chris Gentile: Pilgrim Surf + Supply

Interview by Glenn Sakamoto

Pilgrim Surf + Supply is a surfboard oasis to the many ocean-loving New York surfers. Located in Brooklyn and featuring many preeminent California surfboard builders, Chris Gentile has built a trusted showcase. We spoke with Chris to learn more.

How did the idea of Pilgrim Surf + Supply come into being?
I feel like we arrived here quite naturally. It was never a goal of mine to open a surf shop and get into retail. 12 years ago I moved to New York to make art and to be in a dialog with a community of friends that were doing incredible creative things. Surfing was indeed still a big part of my life but it was something I did without drawing any attention to it.

I came out of a time in the late 80's and 90's when surfing had been dumbed down quite a bit and there wasn't that much openness and creativity coming from the culture. I still loved the act of surfing so that wasn't going to change for me. When I started getting exposed to Andrew Kidman, Joel Tudor, and Thomas Campbell as they were all simultaneously presenting a different way to experience wave riding and I had a moment of enlightenment. I owe a great deal to those guys and all the shapers and surfers they celebrated in their work.

Tell us more...
In 1996, while in graduate school, I had the fortune of having writer, critic, sociologist, Dave Hickey in my studio. He sat down and made it clear he wasn't there to critique my work or try and get in my head and fuck me up any more than I had been by the academic art construct I was imprisoned by. He said "Lets talk about what you're into." Music, writers etc..  and within a matter of seconds he sits up from the rocking chair he was laying back in and points over my head and says, "what are you doing with those?" He was pointing at my boards that I was trying to hide behind some plywood because I didn't want faculty and peers to know I surfed. It's know that sounds ridiculous, but I was embarrassed by the passion I had for surfing! I think it’s because my generation was still dealing with the aftermath of the Spicoli effect on surf culture. Dave quickly snapped me out of that as he went into a 3 hour long seminar about the incredible connections between art, culture, and surfing – the Light and Space artists in Venice surrounding the Ferus gallery in the 50's-60's, other artists that either surfed or had a penchant for surf culture like Billy Al Bengston, Julian Schnabel, Raymond Pettibon. And then the whole ‘78 Surfer Magazine interview with Timothy Leary. As Dave was leaving he said, "Why isn't 'surfing' in your work..?" Essentially that moment made me realize that I could allow all my passions and influences touch. That was almost 20 years ago but it was the foundation that allowed us to arrive here with Pilgrim.

Who are your core customers?
I'm happy to say that we have a wonderfully diverse core customer. Our regulars are from every walk of life. It’s no surprise as we're a shop in one of the most diverse populations in the world! There are ex-pat rippers here from all over the world as well as our own homegrown talent pool. It’s the young, old newbie, and seasoned shredder. We have the non-surfers shopping of course, and then you'll get a surprise visit from a legend like Rusty Miller, Jamie Brisick, Nick Carroll, Tom Curren, Paul Strauch or Derek Hynd to name a few. What's amazing and what I forget often is that the world comes to New York. You never know who's going to walk through the door!

What else can you tell us?
I've observed a large number of men and women that are regular customers that have developed a passion for surfing much later in life. Most being in their 30's and 40's. I believe this is due to the fact that this group of people have come to this city to pursue their passions as creatives, professionals etc. and then find the humbling challenges of surfing and escape into nature refreshing. They generally have a great deal of self respect and the capacity to be embarrassed in the process of learning which I believe comes from the humility you have to embrace if you're going to survive and thrive here in NYC. Another thing that I'm truly jazzed by is the fact that this same group of people posses a real desire to understand the culture of surfing – where surfboard design concepts and threads have come from, historical contexts, the lore and myth of our legends. They have a real appreciation of the culture that goes beyond a romantic fascination.

What is it about Brooklyn that makes it an ideal place to sell surfboards?
Ha! There's nothing really ideal about selling surfboards anywhere! I'm half kidding. I think most surfers would agree that the boards are the backbone of a solid, functioning hard goods surf shop.That said, the margins are incredibly slim. Obviously this is the reason why surf shops have to rely on the apparel side to cover the margins.

I remember reading a Bev Morgan Interview in The Surfers Journal years ago where he tells some incredible stories about ordering some boards from Bob Simmons and the board building industry in California in the late 50's. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something to the effect that surfboards should be worth several times more than what they are valued at today because of the skill and knowledge it takes to make a good one. When you look at it as if it were an hourly job, a seasoned board builder hand shaping a board is making the equivalent to what a junior ruff carpenter would make with only a couple years experience. Doesn't make sense. But then again, If these guys we're hungry to make money they wouldn't be building surfboards. They're in it because they love it and they probably love not having to 9 to 5 it either and getting to surf whenever they want!

Tell us more...
Selling boards for us is another way to connect back to our community while simultaneously celebrating a craft and culture that is not unlike what one might consider a folk tradition. I have a deep respect for people that shape and glass boards. Its a unique skill set and a difficult business! It's easy for me to say that our rack of 50-60+ boards is the heart and soul of our shop. I get a high off of seeing someone walk out the door with a board under their arm. It’s almost like seeing your kid go off to their first day of school! Bitter sweet. I order every board the traditional way – by hand on an order form with dims, stringer layup, glassing instructions, fins etc., so  when they come it’s as if they're all my customs – It’s painful! I made a rule that I have to order my own personal boards. I'm not allowed to take them out of our stock!

What is Pilgrim’s mission and what makes your shop different?
We strive to be a company that is continuously learning, evolving and contributing back to the culture. We're introducing disparate aspects of culture that outside of our shop most likely would not touch each other. It’s exciting to watch people come into the door and discover things, or for example, be challenged by the fact that there's a book on Italian painter Giorgio Morandi sitting next to a rack of George Greenough fins shelved next to a hearty winter jacket designed in Denmark which hangs in front of a rack of Josh Hall, Fineline, Andreini, or Yater midlength – all of which are relevant to us! Maybe what makes us different is that we're responding to where we are and who our customers are. I think thats goes for most retail really. At least it does for the stores I'm most inspired by.

How do you go about choosing which shaper’s boards to carry?
We love supporting shapers and glassing factories that have a passion for building surfboards as well as surfing those boards. There's such incredible connections to pivotal moments in surfing history that have direct ties to board builders. I love the fact that in our world the most significant design innovations have happened in the backyard and garages of surfers trying to enhance their experience on a wave and usually for the wave(s) they are surfing like the Campbell Brothers in Oxnard. There's so many fantastic board builders that we don't carry. I honestly wish we had the space for everyone! One thing that feels really good to me is that the shapers and glassers we do work with are friends. Nothing feels better than that! I personally order every board for the shop. Its one of my favorite things to do! Its not an easy business for the shapers or us. The margins are razor thin for the builders and shops and the process of shipping seasonally is extremely challenging. I feel like its a gift that we have the opportunity to have the boards we have in the shop.

Our vision is to present surfboards in a way that allows the customer to understand their uniqueness and authenticity within our culture. Riding a well built and uniquely designed surfboard makes the experience of surfing better in my opinion. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?
Not in any particular order, but I am a visual artist, husband, father, surfer, and owned by (or owner) of Pilgrim Surf + Supply. I grew up in Rhode Island and moved to south Florida with my mother when I was in my early teens. The rest of my family lives in RI, so I went back for summers and still got to surf there. Florida was warm but we were on Sanibel and Captiva Island (west coast) so the surf was infrequent.. but we took advantage of any ripple that popped up and my friends and I got pretty good at skimboarding!

When did you start surfing?
I started surfing and skating in 1982 when I was around 9 years old. My Uncle Lou surfed and He was a god to me! He and his buddies Albert and Lenny were apart of the first wave of guys to surf in Rhode Island in the early 60's. All three of them at some point helped Jim Phillips out with his board building when he would do shaping stints on the East Coast. We sell Jim's boards in our shop now and if you look at Jim's logo lams they all have CA, HI, FL, and RI on them.

Tell us about your first wave
The first real down the line wave I remember catching was at Point Judith Rhode Island. That wave was the one that sealed the deal. Its all I could think about! I wasn't surfing the main peak at Point Judith as it was packed with good surfers and it was pretty intimidating for a kid. I was a bit north up the point at Pilgrim Ave. That's one of the reasons we called the shop Pilgrim. But when that came up I realized that the word Pilgrim had abundant metaphoric possibilities in relationship to surfing.

What work experience did you have before Pilgrim?
I worked in a Surf and Skate shop all through middle and high school. In 1991, I went off to college for sculpture, printmaking, and photography and from there in ‘96, I went off to grad school for my MFA. After that I taught at VCU in landlocked Richmond Virginia but surfed Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks frequently. Then I was asked to teach at VCU's branch campus in Qatar,  Middle East. I had a great two years there in my late 20's and had the chance to surf Oman, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. After those two years, I felt the urge to move to NY and so did my girlfriend at the time who was back in the States and who foolishly then married me after a couple years in the city! Now she has to run the back end of our business. Lucky for us she's kind of a bad ass. We've got two great little kids and an amazing extended family of people that make Pilgrim, Pilgrim. We're pretty fortunate!

What’s next for Chris and Pilgrim Surf + Supply?
We hope to continue to stay awake and relevant in our world. We have a several collaborations coming up this year as well as helping some friends with their new pursuits. For me, I need to get back in the studio and get started on a new body of work. And I need to surf more, too.

Click on the link to learn more about Pilgrim Surf + Supply. Photography by James Katsipis, Chris Mosier, and Joseph Falcone