Arriving at Wheal Kitty as creative production company Sideways, Mark and Em Anderson weren’t the obvious contenders to take on the old board factory. But, by drawing on their flair for a story and intuition for space, they’ve created something new. We talked shop (and shaping) with Open.
Seen through a window in the bright high space of Open, shapers are at work. Skimming perfect curves, rounding out the rails, performing the craft that takes a lifetime to hone. Owners Mark and Em perch at the counter, coffees are passed to visitors from surrounding workshops. Christmas card exchanges, babies, dogs, and the hiss of a milk steamer punctuate conversation. It’s not a typical shaper set-up, but Mark and Em –storytellers by trade – have purposefully carved things out their own way.
Open opened for business in 2017, and runs as a surf shop, shaping factory and café. “I’d always pop in here when it was the old factory,” Mark says, starting a story that ends where we’re sat now, “I found the shaping process fascinating.” But after 25 years – the factory was going to close, no longer able to keep up with overseas production. So Mark and Em set out to keep the factory alive, all be it in a different guise. “British surfers will pay more for a board from Thailand than for one made here,” he continues. “It’s the only industry I can think of where you pay more for an import than for something handmade, so we had to go for a totally different model.”
Surfer, shaper, sea
Open sets itself apart by tangibly re-connecting surfer to board. For a start, its two-day surfboard-making workshops give people the chance to try shaping their own. “People get in touch with the materials, the process,” Mark says, “spend two days with a shaper, and you’ll understand. You have this thing at the end that you can care for. People feel a strong sense of connection with their hand-shaped boards. They think about it in a different way, keep it repaired and in good condition.” And Mark and Em have begun to see people coming back into the shaping bay, to tweak and play more. “It becomes an ongoing process,” Em adds, “people want to see how different things affect their surfing.”
"People feel a strong sense of connection with their hand-shaped boards. They think about it in a different way, keep it repaired and in good condition" - Mark Anderson
It was this spirit of experimentation that inspired the Open Board Club, a monthly membership scheme where surfers essentially join a board library, swapping boards in and out, at any time. For surfer, environment and shaper, it’s win-win-win. “The Board Club answers many of the problems that we’ve seen in the shaping industry,” Mark says. He explains that because people don’t pay much for boards equivalent to the level of workmanship and time that goes into them, talented shapers producing small quantities of boards don’t stand much chance of progressing past minimum wage. “Through the Board Club, each board can earn more over its life span,” he says, “and so the principle is those earnings can feed back to the craftsmen behind it.” It’s early days for the Board Club, but Mark feels positive. “If it takes off, it could really shift the needle for sustainability in surfing, for everyone involved,” he continues. “Environmentally, if you’ve got eight boards in a quiver and six don’t get used for most of the year, that’s a huge amount of waste. This way people can share boards; they can try stuff out with reduced impact and increased potential for fun.”
There’s a camaraderie to the Board Club, boards swap hands, surfers compare notes. With no branding or marking, choosing a board comes down to you, the ocean and the ride. “We’ve had shapers over from Australia and America. Every time they come we get a selection of boards for the rack,” Mark says, “these guys have well-renowned brands, but they've all bought into the idea. They love the thought that someone will go through the rack and choose purely on shape.”
Both show a visible buzz for a scheme that’s gathering pace, hitting a sweet spot and connecting with surfers. “There’s all this education around it we want to do as well,” Em explains, “we’ve not really even dipped below the surface yet, because there’s been so much to do, just getting this place ready.” By ‘this place,’ she means the hybrid factory-shop-café-gallery space at Wheal Kitty that Open has grown into. “I was influenced by Australia and their sense of style and aesthetic out there,” she continues, “so I thought, why don’t we open it up? Then we figured if anyone wants to come in and mill around here, it’d be nice to serve them a coffee. Then the cakes came, and the plants and the products. We saw what people were interested in, things we wanted to support. Really, it’s all just to get people to stay, to understand what we’re doing and create our own little community.”
Here for good
From the Board Club to the impromptu café, Open is driven forward by the desire to build a place to talk surfing, peruse boards and meet likeminds, without any pressure to buy, or speak the right lingo. “I’ve always found the surf industry intimidating,” Em confesses, “I’ve felt I’m not cool enough or I don’t look a certain way and I think a lot of people probably feel like that. We wanted it to be as open and friendly as we possibly could.” Which makes Wheal Kitty the perfect place for Open to exist. “I think all the brands based here have similar intentions,” she continues. “Everyone’s trying to make something good; no one’s trying to hoodwink anyone. Canteen, Finisterre, SAS – we’ve all got something we’re striving for.”
“I think all the brands based here have similar intentions. Everyone’s trying to make something good – we’ve all got something we’re striving for.” - Em Anderson
Mark and Em acknowledge the sea as the thread that keeps everyone here, and makes the ‘here’ part essential to each business. “We signed a 20 year lease,” Mark says with satisfying finality. “I don’t think anything in this spot is meant to be transient.” Open literally gives people the tools to connect with the ocean in a tactile and conscious way. And en route Mark and Em have created somewhere for sea-lovers to gather. “The whole place has been pretty organic, hasn’t it?” Em smiles, turning to Mark. “If we’d had the cash to do this all in one go it wouldn’t be what it is now. We’ve been open to ideas, basically. We want it to tells its own story. That’s what everything’s been about.”
It seems natural that for Mark and Em – film producers by trade – success is measured in terms of the tale behind and ahead of Open. And that a good story kicked it all off in the first place, of course. “The most important thing for us is keeping the factory open. It’s got such a history,” Em says. “But we’ve got to offer a good service to people too,” adds Mark. “If we just do good stuff, I feel like the business will grow no matter what. That’s it.”
And that is it. Good stuff, in a building with a history worth honouring. An idea that runs throughout the whole Wheal Kitty family. Here’s to the next 19 years of Open’s lease.
Photos by Abbi Hughes